February 18, 2004
Discrimination reports need polishing, analysts say
By Amelia Gruber
A number of federal agencies recently posted on their Web sites reports required by an anti-discrimination law, but these reports will require some fine-tuning before they will be of much use to analysts and the public, civil rights advocates said on Wednesday.
Under the Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation (No FEAR) Act, which took effect on Oct. 1, 2003, agencies must publish quarterly data on the volume and nature of discrimination complaints they have received, as well as their methods of resolving those complaints. The reports should give the public a feeling for how effectively various agencies address allegations of discrimination, said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the senior Environmental Protection Agency policy analyst who shepherded No FEAR into law.
But the information agencies have provided to date is incomplete and is not presented in a format that facilitates meaningful analysis, Coleman-Adebayo said. Agencies have provided a hodge-podge of statistics in a variety of formats, making it nearly impossible to compare data across the government, she explained. In addition, no one is checking to make sure that the statistics posted are accurate.
The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, charged with issuing guidelines for No FEAR reports, is aware of these potential problems, said Gary Hozempa, a senior staff attorney in the EEOC’s Office of Legal Counsel. Over the coming months, EEOC officials will gather public input and determine how, or if, they should refine reporting guidelines proposed in late January, he said.
The EEOC’s draft guidelines asked agencies to post initial No FEAR reports on their Web sites by Jan. 31, 2004. These reports were to cover the first quarter of fiscal 2004, which ended on Dec. 31, 2003, and were to include: number of employment discrimination complaints filed and type of alleged discrimination; number of employees filing more than one complaint; average time spent investigating complaints; number of complaints dismissed; and number of discrimination findings.
Because the draft regulations, published in the Federal Register on Jan. 26, gave agencies less than a week to compile the first reports, the EEOC informally extended the deadline by a month, Hozempa said. Many major agencies have now posted the quarterly statistics required by No FEAR on their Web sites, but the preliminary reports are not consistent with one another and are in differing stages of completion.
For instance, the Agriculture Department’s report includes a section on disciplinary actions taken against employees found guilty of discrimination, though the section currently contains no data. The Environmental Protection Agency’s report does not have a corresponding section on discipline.
The Labor Department’s first report includes a glossary with definitions of legal terms, but other agency reports simply relay numbers or percentages with little explanation of what the statistics mean.
EEOC officials are waiting until the end of the month to begin looking over the reports that agencies have posted, Hozempa said. But he added that he would not be at all surprised to see inconsistencies. In a push to post information on time, some agencies may have based their initial No FEAR reports on draft guidelines that EEOC officials passed around in August 2003, rather than the rules officially proposed in January.
The EEOC is open to the idea of imposing a uniform format for No FEAR reports, Hozempa said. Some civil rights advocates have suggested that this would make it easier to compare statistics across the government. If the EEOC were to dictate a format for reports, officials would likely draw ideas from agencies’ initial postings.
“Everyone’s getting hands-on experience with the [draft] regulations as they’ve been published,” Hozempa said. “I think that if people are having problems, they’ll let us know during the comment period and then we can fine-tune [the guidelines].” EEOC will likely extend the comment period 30 days, allowing the public a total of 90 days to offer suggestions, he added.
In addition to weighing the need for a consistent reporting format, EEOC officials will tackle the question of which agency, if any, is responsible for enforcing No FEAR’s reporting requirements and ensuring that the statistics presented are accurate.
“Congress gave EEOC the authority to direct the time, form and manner of the posting,” Hozempa said. “There’s nothing there that says what we can do if agencies don’t comply.”
The EEOC and agencies will need time to sort out these details and refine No FEAR reports to the point where they will be useful to analysts, said Jorge Ponce, co-chairman of the Council of Federal EEO and Civil Rights Executives. In the meantime, it is a “very, very positive” sign that many have already attempted to post data.
“Things are falling into place,” Ponce said. “Now we are dealing with fine-tuning.”
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