Politics of Poverty

Why federal appointments should get an intersectional feminist review

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Oxfam staff at the Women's March on January 19, 2019. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

Four principles to help the next president achieve a more just and equal society.

Once considered an obscure principle used only by the most knowledgeable Washington operators, the phrase “personnel is policy” is nearing political cliché status. First attributed to the Reagan administration, this simple yet profound theory holds that a president’s ability to change the ideological direction of the country rests on the individuals who are appointed to key posts within the administration.

This powerful idea has taken hold among advocates on both sides of the political aisle.

Yet in the popular discussion of personnel, there remains a relatively narrow focus on only the most prominent appointments, such as cabinet members and the president’s chief of staff. While these roles are indeed crucial, the narrow spotlight on a few key positions means that there is insufficient attention paid to positions that—when considered collectively—may be more consequential.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been growing discussion of issues of diversity in these appointments. Indeed, former Vice President Biden has pledged that, if elected, he will seek “gender parity and full diversity” across his administration.

But the truth is the next administration, whether Trump or Biden, cannot effectively pursue goals related to advancing economic, climate, racial, and social justice unless they go beyond commitments around broadening the diversity of staff. The next president must elevate leaders committed to representing their interests and bring a diversity of insights and perspectives drawn from the lived experience of the most sidelined people.

With that in mind, we are proposing a new and more ambitious set of appointment criteria for the next president, along with a list of important but often overlooked SES and Schedule C positions that have the power to move us toward a more just and equal society. We use a hybrid feminist/intersectional lens to help shape these criteria because: (a) feminism’s political goal is to bring light to issues and individuals frequently left out of policy design, implementation, and decision-making spaces, and (b) intersectionality’s political goal is to highlight the intersecting areas of oppression faced by individuals across the US and around the world.

With this lens applied to the more obscure (and often more hands-on) appointments, we believe government will be more effective at working for the majority of Americans. These ideas are not exhaustive, but we hope they build on the fine work of others, such as The Revolving Door Project and Data for Progress, in setting a bar for how we evaluate presidential appointments.

Four principles for an intersectional feminist federal government

  1. Appointees Should Represent All Citizens

Women, gender-diverse people, Black and Indigenous Peoples and people of color (BIPOC), and people with disabilities who represent the most marginalized in American society must be strongly considered for appointments across the next president’s Cabinet and political appointees. This will help ensure that their views will be placed at the center of decision-making and policy-implementing processes. The next administration should look like our country in every possible respect, including at the highest levels.

2. Appointees Should Have a Proven Track Record Supporting Marginalized Peoples

Presidential appointees should be able to demonstrate they have the necessary knowledge, experience, and a demonstrated record of acting in the interests of marginalized people. This includes: (a) intersectional feminist knowledge, (b) feminist management and leadership styles, (c) an ability to operate under feminist budgeting principles, (d) a strong commitment to safety, equity, diversity and inclusion, and (e) a commitment to accountability. We list out what this looks like below:

Intersectional feminist knowledge:

In previous positions, the official should have a track record demonstrating

  • An understanding of intersectionality and feminism in applied policy settings
  • Advocating for policies that support the most marginalized (women, gender non-conforming people, BIPOC, people with disabilities) in their execution of the job
  • Commitment to effecting large-scale transformation of systems that do not work for everyone/favor the elite, white, male, able-bodied and wealthy individuals—e.g., abolishing private prisons
  • Past public statements and internal workplace support for the bodily autonomy of women, gender-diverse people, people with disabilities, and BIPOC; proven stance against gender-based violence (GBV) and racism/xenophobia toward marginalized people

Feminist management and leadership styles:

In previous positions, the official should have a track record demonstrating

  • Efforts to increase pay equity among employees
  • Elevating women, non-gender-conforming people, and BIPOC into leadership positions
  • The implementation of policies that recognize and enable gender and intersectional diversity and trans-friendliness in the workplace—e.g., gender-neutral bathrooms
  • The implementation of a flattened hierarchy within the workplace, enabling junior and senior staff to better collaborate, communicate, and share ideas

Feminist budgeting:

In previous positions, the official should have a track record championing feminist budgeting; defined as

  • Setting up transparent processes that enable thorough consultation with stakeholders affected by budgeting decisions
  • Incentivizing consistent analysis of the differentiated impacts of budgeting decisions and effective transformation of budget-making in response
  • Accountability around reporting and making public the impact of budget decisions on marginalized communities

Commitment to safety, diversity, equity and inclusion:

In previous positions, the official should have a track record demonstrating

  • Taking steps to eradicate sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and religion-based and race-based discrimination in the workplace
  • The implementation of policies that support workplace accommodations for all employee needs—e.g., considerations for discrimination concerns regarding race, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation, religion, and others
  • Leadership in championing staff obligations for dependent care, childcare, and parental leave for all employees

Commitment to accountability:

In previous positions, the official should have a track record demonstrating

  • The implementation of accountability mechanisms (assessing the impact of key policy decisions on marginalized communities; HR policies; Operations policies) to uphold a workplace culture that reflects intersectional feminist values
  • Consistent tracking of internal policies and processes with regular reporting to stakeholders and constituents

3. Appointees Should be Free from Any Conflicts of Interest

The next administration must go beyond Obama-era rules that limited the revolving door. Simple bans on lobbyists are inadequate. The administration should not appoint individuals who will be tasked with overseeing their previous employers. Americans are tired of government decisions that are, or appear to be, slanted by undue influence of special interest. If we are to make progress in the fight against inequality, the next administration should seek to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interests to help rebuild trust in government and to root out corruption in federal institutions.

This includes banning lobbyists from regulatory posts; strengthening provisions to close the revolving door between corporations and the agencies that regulate them; banning gifts and donations from lobbyists to lawmakers; and markedly increasing the level of transparency around lobbying and political influencing. Limiting the ability of corporations to use their economic might to rig the political rules in their favor is an essential step to confronting the inequality crisis harming women, BIPOC, and other marginalized communities.

4. Appointees Should Support Commitment to Intersectional Feminism Across the Entire Government

Forging equality across race, gender, identity, and ethnicity requires a whole-of-government commitment to intersectional feminism in all federal policy. Whether you are approving contracts in the Department of Defense or regulating banks, you have the power to help make our society and our country more just and equal. Of course, every position is different and requires specific competencies relevant to the role, but these are the kinds of considerations the president and his staff should be looking at when making choices. In other words, not every position needs to check every single box here because that’s not possible, but if appointees can come together to support these ideas, greater unity and commitment across the government can be achieved.

This commitment looks like holding a strongly feminist economic stance, being in favor of feminist foreign and domestic policy, taking a feminist, people-centered approach to work, holding a feminist judicial stance, believing in the equalizing power of intersectional feminism for education, and understanding that climate change and climate justice are intersectional feminist issues. We list out what these look like in detail here:

Feminist economic stance:

Wherever possible, the official should demonstrate

  • Support for centering a human economy above a cutthroat economy, including support for a progressive tax scheme, taxing the ultra-rich their fair share, and ensuring a distribution of wealth that is supported by government
  • Advocacy against monopolization of economic power into the hands of the few
  • Advocacy against intimate partner violence (IPV) and gender-based violence (GBV) that prohibits marginalized people from freely accessing the paid economy
  • Support for the essential service of unpaid care work as a vital part of our economy, and a record of advocating for economic policies that value this work, including policies that make unpaid care work paid

Feminist foreign and domestic policy stance:

Wherever possible, the official should demonstrate

  • Views that support disarmament and demilitarization nationally and internationally
  • Views that elevate the importance of US development policy on par with diplomacy and defense and push for the primary purpose of US development assistance to fight poverty, inequality, and gender inequality
  • Support for the inclusion of women and gender-diverse individuals in peace processes, as well as encouraging new, more inclusive ways of brokering peace
  • Support for mediated and long-term mutually beneficial trade agreements
  • Strong support for immigration, migration and refugees nationally and internationally; support for the softening of borders and the welcoming of newcomers
  • Support for advocating for and implementing a national health service that centers women, girls and marginalized populations in the US (BIPOC, LGTBQIA+)
  • Support for enforcing and developing more progressive civil rights laws

Feminist, people-centered approach to work:

Wherever possible, the official should demonstrate

  • Support for the working people, including enforcing labor and employment laws in the workplace
  • Advocating for and/or supporting workplace practices that empower women, including equal pay, greater access to types of employment, and directly addressing sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in the workplace
  • Support for the centering of health and well-being above short-term profits and exploitation of workers
  • Understanding of the challenges working parents and caregivers face, and being a proponent of policies to address these challenges, including flexible working hours and arrangements, schedule control, paid leave, and a prioritization of education for workers and their families
  • Strong support for inclusive workplace culture practices, such as efforts to accommodate worker disabilities, encouraging flattened hierarchical workplace structures, and communal, stakeholder-led decision-making practices

Feminist judicial stance:

Wherever possible, the official should demonstrate

  • Support for restorative justice processes over punitive justice processes
  • Support for transforming the school to prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects marginalized youth (BIPOC, LGBTQIA+)
  • Support for the abolition of for-profit prisons

Intersectional feminist educational stance:

Wherever possible, the official should demonstrate

  • Support for the bolstering of Title IX regulations and the protection and nurturing of LGBTQIA+ students, BIPOC students, and the equal opportunity of girls
  • Support for universal free, high-quality education at all levels, allowing for increased opportunity for marginalized communities to enter higher levels of education

Intersectional feminist position on climate change:

Wherever possible, the official should demonstrate

  • Support for mitigation, adaptation efforts, solutions, and leadership of frontline communities—such as Indigenous communities, women’s organizations and organizations led by BIPOC—within the US and globally
  • Support to end environmental racism
  • Support for the decriminalization/exoneration of environmental defenders
  • Support for systemically confronting extractive, exploitative, and unsustainable production patterns

These principles may look fantastic on paper, but how are they reasonably applied to government roles? Moreover, how can they improve a candidate search for roles that are typically not analyzed through an intersectional, feminist lens?

Here, we select 15 sub-cabinet roles that rarely garner media attention and put them to the intersectional feminist test.

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