Municipal Workforces Don’t Always Reflect a City’s Population. Now, More Cities are Naming Chief Diversity Officers

Chief diversity officers, while not a new concept, have seen a significant surge in their numbers in the past few years.

Chief diversity officers, while not a new concept, have seen a significant surge in their numbers in the past few years. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

More local governments are taking an interest as citizen demand for representation increases.

Across the country, more and more cities are creating a top management position aimed at making local government more responsive to everybody who lives in their communities. Chief diversity officers, while not a new concept, have seen a significant surge in their numbers in the past few years. 

But not every city has a CDO, and some of the places lacking this type of focus are surprising.  New York City doesn’t have a chief diversity officer, and neither does Los Angeles. Cities that have created the role in the past few years include Boston, Austin, Philadelphia, Buffalo, New York and Columbus, Ohio. Of the 250 largest cities in the country, about one in four cities now employs a CDO.

“It’s surprising how recent these positions are in most places,” said Christopher Cooper, the head of the political science and public affairs department at Western Carolina University, who recently published research on the adoption of the chief diversity officer position in cities across the country. 

The first CDO in Cooper’s dataset of 250 cities was hired in Des Moines, Iowa in 1951, though most cities didn’t hire for the position until the 1990s. There was a spike in CDO position creation in 2000, and again in 2015, and 2016. More than half of all CDOs have been created since 2006. 

“You had a few pace setters doing this work early,” Cooper said. “But the rise is relatively recent as local governments start adopting the idea from the private sector.” 

Cooper’s work found that cities with more resources were no more likely to adopt a CDO than those with fewer resources—which he found surprising  because he thought megacities would be the trendsetters. Instead, cities with diverse populations are much more likely to adopt a CDO, as are those with a politically liberal base. Cooper said that is because city management usually makes the decision to create the CDO position because of constituent pressure, not based on internal demand from within government. 

In New York City, Comptroller Scott Stringer is pushing for the city to create a CDO position focused on government procurement practices, arguing that the city should be purchasing from a more diverse array of businesses. “While 80% of New Yorkers are women or people of color, just 5% of the spending on goods and services by our own city goes to [women or minority-owned businesses],” Stringer said at a recent rally. Stringer created a CDO position within the comptroller’s office when he was elected in 2014, and said that the office has increased procurement spending on women and minority-owned businesses by 24% since 2017. He now hopes to see the job at a citywide level dealing with a bigger portfolio.

If New York ends up with a CDO who focuses primarily on how procurement dollars are spent, it would be the first city to tailor the position in that way. 

Heather Rimes, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University, has interviewed 15 CDOs from cities with populations over 250,000. She’s found that CDOs can have a range of duties, although many are focused on internal hiring and examining whether government is developing a diverse workforce, while also perhaps ensuring agencies are working with nonprofits and small businesses representative of the city. Other CDOs might concentrate on legal compliance activities, such as investigating complaints, or on strategic policy work, like consulting on diversity initiatives with the mayor. 

“CDOs play a variety of roles within government,” she said. “In most cities, a compliance manager role that adjudicates diversity issues was foundational, and they build out from there.”

Rimes also found that newer CDOs were more likely to have a policy influence in their city, while cities that employed the position the longest were more compliance-based. 

In addition to the variation in duties, some CDOs have more power than others. Cooper said that cities often promote the position through press releases, which “shows it’s a big deal, because they don’t send out an announcement for every new HR hire.” But researchers also found that excitement for the position may be more symbolic than indicative of the influence they’ll have. 

“For some of these CDOs, they’ll be in upper-level management and very visible, but the resources given to their office were relatively small,” said Rimes. “Offices in a city with more than 250,000 people might only have one person in it.”

Rimes said the largest office of the CDOs she spoke to staffed 13 people, and the average was around 6 or 7 employees. “When the resources don’t line up with the placement of the position, that’s when it’s more symbolic,” she said. 

While not much research has been dedicated to the influence of CDOs in the public sector, critiques of the position in the private sector have found that many may be “set up to fail.” In a survey of 234 diversity executives from S&P 500 companies, researchers found that CDOs are often too new to the role, lack critical resources, and don’t have the support of other leaders to make much change. 

The former CDO of Buffalo, New York, Crystal Rodriguez, noted that, in order to be successful, “the role of the CDO has to be genuine and can’t just be a figurehead.”

Cooper thinks that the position may take on more influence as more citizens realize it’s a possibility in their city. “Cities are diversifying, and most cities are trying to diversify their workforce,” he said. “In cities where residents are experiencing discrimination, a CDO can make them feel they have a voice. It’s one way for cities to be better represent their constituents.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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