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Mayor Walsh’s erratic efforts for a diverse workforce

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

The administration of Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is experiencing growing pains. And one especially sore spot is the effort to create a municipal workforce that reflects the racial makeup of the city, where people of color comprise 53 percent of the population.

The administration recently rejected a routine public records request by Globe reporters seeking race or ethnicity information for the city’s roughly 19,000 workers. Walsh said he doubted the accuracy of the previous Menino administration’s data collection methods. But he wasn’t forthcoming on the racial breakdown of his own hires, either. It is clear, however, that whites predominated during the initial hiring and appointment stages for higher level, nonunion positions in the new administration. Of 43 cabinet members and department heads, for example, only 11 are people of color.

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This week, the numbers started to turn in the administration’s favor. Suddenly City Hall was in a sharing mood. From January to May, the administration has filled 189 positions, according to chief of operations Joseph Rull. Of that number, 129 — or 68 percent — are people of color. Pretty impressive at first blush. But a deeper cut at the data suggests that many of the minorities could be filling jobs at the lower end of the union wage scale. Whites predominate in the nonunion “exempt” jobs, which often include executive or administration positions. Of 27 managers in exempt positions, for example, 10 are people of color, according to the administration

The Walsh administration denies sitting on the diversity data until it looked better. But one thing is certain. The new mayor needs to get in the habit of acceding to legitimate records requests from the press and public. Walsh was exempt from public records laws when he served as a representative in the Legislature. But he can’t pull that trick in City Hall. Transparency is every bit as important as diversity in a mayoral administration.

Walsh made explicit promises during the campaign that he would do everything in his power to diversify the city workforce. Presumably, he wasn’t just trolling for minority votes. Every successful urban politician knows the importance of this issue. Deploying an overwhelmingly white police force in cities with large minority populations, for example, has been a recipe for trouble since the 1960s. A healthy presence of minority police means stronger community relations and better field intelligence. Walsh and Boston Police Superintendent William Evans should be worried that there are only 11 minorities in the current police class of 56 recruits. They need to find ways to attract more minority officers, especially those who speak Spanish, Haitian Creole, and other languages commonly heard on the streets of Boston.

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But the main rationale for a diverse workplace is no different in City Hall than in the private sector: Residents — or clients — demand it. Bostonians of all races take pride in a municipal workforce that reflects the population of the city. It’s part of the urban ethos. And it’s good for the city’s overall reputation.

Rull, who oversees human resources, said that it is time for everyone in city government to get in step with the mayor’s priorities on diversity.

Bostonians of all races take pride in a municipal workforce that reflects the population of the city.

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“If people think this is going to go away, then they should go away,’’ said Rull.

According to 2009 city data, 43 percent of the city’s nearly 19,000 workers are minorities. It suggests that Walsh doesn’t need to move the needle all that much before the city workforce reflects the population. But the bigger challenge ahead is creating opportunities for minorities to move into management positions. Right now, white employees seem to fill those pathways. Of the 60 white employees brought on by the Walsh administration during the last five months, for example, all but one of them filled exempt positions known for greater upward mobility.

As positions open up, one place the administration might want to look for help is the Talent Network database maintained at UMass Boston. It contains the names and backgrounds of almost 1,000 minority professionals.

Walsh, meanwhile, could do more to help his own cause. He promised during the course of the campaign that he would hire a chief diversity officer for the city. That position remains open.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at
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