For Diversity in Public Administration: The time to act is now!

We asked two of the authors of a new Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung study about their findings: Dr. Anne-Kathrin Will and Professor Magdalene Nowicka.

Image: Prof. Dr. Magdalena Nowicka of Photografic Berlin

Image: Dr. Anne-Kathrin Will of DeZIM-Institut

Image: of © shutterstock / Ink Drop

One quarter of all the people living in Germany have a history of migration. But so far this diversity scarcely has been reflected in the civil service. There, barely 6% of all employees share such a background. At the same time, public administration is facing unparalleled personnel changes. As the micro-census of 2016 showed, by 2036 over half of its current employees will have retired (micro-census, 2016). That wave of retirements will result in an enormous need for skilled professionals. In light of that trend, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung commissioned the German Center for Research on Integration and Migration (German acronym DeZIM) to conduct a study on the issue, which now has been completed. It is entitled “A Temporal Window on Diversity: The intercultural opening of the public administration.”

FES: Dr. Will and Professor Nowicka: Why is it important to know who works in public administration and who doesn’t?

MN: Public administration has a special position in society. On the one hand, it represents the interests of all citizens regardless of whether they belong to a certain group defined by characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity, or religion. Whether or not politics is perceived as legitimate and credible depends on how well public administration meets those expectations. On the other hand, the state must not discriminate against anyone; hence, it must guarantee equal access for all citizens to positions within the public administration. These two principles underlie the idea of a so-called “representative bureaucracy,” described by a number of social scientists since the 1970s. Open access to offices and jobs in public administration is understood to be a democratic right.

AW: Ten years ago, the German constitution, the Basic Law, was supplemented by the Universal Law on Equal Treatment, which is relevant in this context. Yet we can see that employees with a history of migration still are considerably underrepresented, especially at the leadership level. That generalization also applies to women, for example. Some branches of the administration already have been very active in applying the equal treatment law in both areas as well as in their efforts to include handicapped people. But not all branches of the administration have done so, and not to the same extent. That is something that our study clearly shows.

Who do you think should read the study and why?

MN: The study is important primarily for decision-makers in politics and especially within the public administration itself. Those who decide upon and implement employment strategies should definitely be interested in knowing what tools already have been deployed in administrations at the federal, state, and local levels. In addition, the study analyzes how the officials responsible for personnel matters and those charged with carrying out integration justify the strategies they have chosen to increase the proportion of employees with a migration background. This critical discussion is also relevant for other readers, for example those in the social sciences.

AW: Furthermore, the study is also important for organizations that receive public funding such as the associations that provide welfare services, for which the public administration is a model. And we should not forget the federal government itself. It must direct its own administration officially to open itself up to employees with a migration background and provide it with concrete guidelines. In the absence of such a clear mandate, we’ll have to rely on the individual efforts of specific public authorities.

What exactly did you have in mind when you chose the title of the study? Why is the issue of diversity in public administration relevant right now?

MN: The so-called baby boomer generation (1946-1964) is now heading into retirement.  For that reason, a large number of public administration positions will have to be filled in the years to come. We could treat this situation as an opportunity to increase the proportion of people with a migration background in public administration. But that is not only a project for the next several years. For quite a while, persons with a migration background have constituted a major proportion of Germany’s population. By this time, every fourth person in Germany is either an immigrant him- or herself or a second-generation immigrant, i.e., having one or two parents who were born with foreign citizenship.

AW: We are also assuming that organizations reproduce themselves. That is to say, when enough people with migration backgrounds work in public administration (i.e., in numbers that match their share of the population) and hold leadership positions in it, then the demographic profile of the civil servants recruited to replace them automatically will look very similar to that of their predecessors.  The crucial step, however, is to bring disadvantaged groups into positions of leadership.

As you were completing your study, were there any findings that surprised you? If so, which ones?

MN: I would have expected public administrations to have developed thoroughgoing, wide-ranging strategies designed to increase employment among persons with a migration background in order to prevent discrimination or at least keep it in check. But many of the tools they use, such as training campaigns, are time-limited, and no systematic efforts are being made to evaluate their effectiveness.  And that is the case even though the responsible parties are aware of the problem and want to remedy it.

AW:  For one thing, I didn’t realize that the so-called encouragement clause—the sentence inserted into job advertisements saying, for example, “We expressly welcome applications from people with migrations backgrounds”—frequently was the only active measure taken to attract more such applicants. Here I would have expected that public administrations might give some thought to how people with migration backgrounds who had applied for jobs actually might be selected for the position. Another surprising thing was that many personnel decision-makers seemed to think that systematic efforts to recruit people with migration backgrounds might contravene Article 33 of the Basic Law, which stipulates the candidates should be chosen according to their “aptitude, ability, and accomplishments in their fields.” In this case, it would be helpful to provide public administrators with a binding interpretation of the applicable principles so that they could comply with the Basic Law while still taking positive measures to attract candidates with a migration background.

You relied on qualitative methods to conduct this study. Why did you opt for that approach and what additional value does it offer as compared to the quantitative studies that have shed light on a similar set of questions?

MN: By using guided interviews and qualitative analysis of integration programs, we can understand better what motivates the respondents to adopt specific measures and which arguments they use when they decide to forego such steps or to take only a few of them. For example, in many interviews the term “migration background” came up. We were able to appreciate how complex that issue is when applied to personnel development only because we asked about it directly. Quantitative surveys would have been able to determine only whether that term was used, but not why it was or wasn’t.

AW: The study’s material is densely concentrated, which I think is one of its strengths. Early reviews of it by employees in the civil service also indicate that they recognize themselves in the portrait we have presented of them. In addition, the study complements surveys of employees such as the quantitative questionnaires issued by the Federal Institute for Population Research in the federal administration.  By choosing for our study those responsible for making personnel decisions, we have focused on the very people whose selection procedures most influence the employment patterns within public administration. In order to identify the areas in which action is needed, it is important to understand their views and perceptions of the constraints under which they have to operate. Through the interplay of quantitative and qualitative research we obtain a comprehensive image showing just how far the process of opening up the administration has progressed to this point.

As we speak, a so-called “National Action Plan for Integration” is being prepared at the federal level. One subset of that plan concerns the issue of intercultural opening in the federal administration. Taking into account the background knowledge provided by this study, what factors must be considered so that real progress can be made in this part of the plan?

AW: The federal government is an important model, yet at the same time it has much catching-up to do, since many local governments as well as a few of the states already have accumulated important experience.  An information transfer must be facilitated here, so that it is not necessary for the federal government to reinvent the wheel. But it must be done in such a way that the federal level does not have to relinquish any of its spheres of responsibility. That division of labor would also benefit administrations in the states and localities that—like the federal government itself—are not particularly experienced in the procedures for opening up an administration. But in principle, a clear decision will have to be made for all federal authorities the concrete purpose of which will be to determine how high the number of employees with a migration background should be and by what point in time that target should be reached. Only the federal government can decide that. The National Action Plan for Integration can send a clear signal concerning this issue. It would set an unambiguous goal expressing the willingness of all of the state’s agencies to recognize how far immigrants and their descendants have come in achieving integration and to honor those achievements by carrying out a reform of their own organizations. 



Ein Zeitfenster für Vielfalt

Chancen für die interkulturelle Öffnung der Verwaltung
Bonn, 2019

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