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How The Mayor Of Pittsburgh Hired The Most Diverse Staff In The City’s History

Local government rarely reflects the diversity of its cities, but one mayor is looking beyond the political machine to change the ratio.

How The Mayor Of Pittsburgh Hired The Most Diverse Staff In The City’s History
[Photo: Flickr user Nathaniel F]

Just as modern-day corporate America has proven an impenetrable environment for women and minorities, a lack of diversity–not surprisingly–exists on many levels of government.

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Across the country, in many of the nation’s most diverse cities, white males still comprise a majority of the government workforce, statistics that mirror corporate America. Males hold 79% of all federal government jobs and 83% of government workers are white, according to a 2011 study of the nonpartisan Center for American Progress. Similar gaps prevail at the state and local levels, in some cases more so.

But awareness of the issue is growing, along with the knowledge that a more diverse workforce not only makes companies stronger, but government more efficient and responsive to citizens. Companies like Google offer “unconscious bias training” to employees. Intel is spending $300 million to accelerate workforce diversity by 2020. But what would this type of diversity push mean for local and national public offices?

“Boards, authorities, and commissions should reflect the diversity of the city,” says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. “It has to be a commitment all the way to the top.”

Peduto is trying to lead by example, making diversity hiring a cornerstone of his administration.

Peduto, 50, is the 60th mayor of Pittsburgh. He won in a landslide victory (84% of the vote) in 2013 on his third try for office. Weary of a scandalized former mayor who ultimately withdrew from the race, voters embraced Peduto’s promise of a “new Pittsburgh.” Peduto began by confronting the lack of diversity on every board, commission, and authority in Pittsburgh. In the first few months, he appointed an executive cabinet of four women and three men, including two African-Americans, a Cuban, and a daughter of Chinese immigrants. While the former mayor (Luke Ravenstahl) claimed his administration was successful in increasing the percentages of minorities and women at the city level during his tenure in office, the city’s lack of reliable data in this area makes his claim difficult to confirm.

Another 45 people were selected to serve on 11 boards, authorities, and commissions. Of them, 55% are women and about one-quarter are African-American.

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A self-described policy wonk, Peduto set aside quotas and took an alternative approach to hiring, handing the reins over to an outside organization. He worked with a local nonprofit, The Pittsburgh Foundation, and four other charities—the Richard King Mellon, Heinz, Hillman, Benedum, and Buhl foundations to launch Talent City. The $275,000 digital platform traded power for talent, he says, casting a wider net for applications and vetting candidates for every open city position.

Talent City borrowed from a similar hiring initiative used in Denver most recently by Mayor Michael Hancock, who was elected mayor in 2011. The Denver Foundation worked with business and community leaders who recruited and recommended city job candidates.

“We needed a much better system (for hiring) than the old political machine system of bringing in the staff of the campaign and friends and political donors,” says Peduto. “By relinquishing our hiring power to a nonprofit, we created a model that’s entirely new. No one had turned the keys over to an outside party before.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s executive team from left to right: Guy Costa, Debbie Lestitian, Lourdes Sanchez Ridge, Bill Peduto, Curtiss Porter (now retired), Valerie McDonald-Roberts, Kevin Acklin, and Debra Lam.

Talent City received thousands of resumes from all over the world. “There was always diversity,” he says. “We didn’t have to go looking for a type of person. Talented people were finding us.”

Talent City was also instrumental in reaching deep into neighborhoods and bringing new voices to the table. Organizations like the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Parking Authority, for generations the tools of male-dominated thinking, are bringing new ideas to the table. “A diverse viewpoint helps to create a better product,” Peduto says.

The trickle down is just beginning. Peduto points to his hire of Maura Kennedy, the first woman in the city’s history to hold the job of director of the Bureau of Building Inspections (now Permits, Licenses & Inspections). She has transformed operations and increased efficiency by bringing the office into the digital age. The Office of Municipal Investigations is being run–another first in city history–by an African-American woman, Deborah Walker. A police officer with 20 years of experience, Walker adds a sorely needed minority perspective to the job.

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“These are examples where the diversity is not based upon on a quota, but upon the best candidate,” Peduto says. “That best candidate can also shatter glass ceilings.”

One year in, many are applauding Peduto’s approach. “It’s not just important but required that a mayor take the lead in this area for real change to take place,” says Melanie Harrington, president and CEO of Vibrant Pittsburgh, an organization that promotes workforce diversity in southwestern Pennsylvania. “The signals he’s sending through his programs, processes, and transparentness create a heightened sense of awareness and show others what they should be doing.”

Cities are changing, Peduto says. Some cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City have “diversity and inclusion” departments to formulate benchmarks and move the needle. Last year Peduto met with several mayors who he says are putting equality, access, and diversity at the forefront of their agendas. Among them are Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.

“What you’re starting to see, especially in the last two years, is an incredible amount of leadership in cities coming from minorities and women,” he says. “These are the types of mayors the rest of us want to be. I just hope they’ll let me, a white guy, work alongside of them.”

What makes Peduto’s story different is his background is hardly diverse. He grew up the youngest of four boys in an Italian Catholic family in a working-class suburb of Pittsburgh, a region ranked at the bottom in terms of diversity. Pittsburgh is 66% white, 26% African-American with minorities making up the difference, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. So how has he carved this role for himself as an advocate of socially responsible governance?

Peduto shrugs. “I’ve never really been concerned about being the white guy in the room,” he says. “I’m more focused on sending a message that we are serious about changing the conversation.”

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Debra Smit is a Pittsburgh-based writer covering business, tech startups, sustainability, and people driving change. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Pittsburgh Magazine, and NEXTpittsburgh. Follow her @debrsmit.