EPA’s Office of Civil Rights: Improving our Procedures, Education, and Expertise to Prevent Discriminatory Injustice

EPA is committed to building a model civil rights program. Our Office of Civil Rights (OCR) exists to protect people from discrimination inside and outside EPA who are affected by agency programs, polices, and activities. OCR enforces statutes related to discrimination, one of which is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs or activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance.

OCR’s External Compliance program has faced challenges in the past resolving Title VI cases. However, in the last 18 months, EPA has installed new leadership in OCR, developed a strategy to manage the docket of complaints more effectively, stepped up our emphasis on a proactive compliance program, and taken steps to make sure our employees have the training and tools they need.

Since 2014, EPA has staffed OCR with new employees that have previous civil rights experience. EPA has also appointed Deputy Civil Rights Officials in each of our 10 Regional offices around the country to act as liaisons to communities and states, to leverage OCR resources with EPA program expertise, and to help OCR collect the evidence and documentation needed for case investigations.

OCR is committed to systematically changing the way it approaches complaints. The office will soon release an External Compliance Program Strategic Plan that sets forth concrete accountability measures to manage the docket of external complaints more promptly, effectively and efficiently. It will also soon have in place a Case Resolution Manual —a comprehensive guide for OCR staff on all phases of case investigation and resolution—including complaints and compliance reviews, as well as model letters, investigative plans, and other standard operating documents for staff as they address and resolve civil rights cases. The manual will bring OCR in line with the kinds of procedures already in place at many other federal civil rights agencies, and for transparency, the manual will be posted online. By developing these tools, we’ll help make sure cases are resolved promptly and consistently across the country.

We’re also releasing a Civil Rights Toolkit, which will help educate states, other recipients of EPA financial assistance, and communities on their rights and obligations under federal nondiscrimination laws. And since every case is different, we will use all resolution options available, including informal resolution and Alternative Dispute Resolution, to promptly and effectively address communities’ concerns and bring about change. In addition, OCR is reevaluating its nondiscrimination regulations to make sure they offer the flexibility and clarity needed to manage the complaint docket more strategically, and to build a stronger proactive compliance program.

OCR is strengthening its proactive compliance efforts through targeted compliance reviews, strategic policy development, and engagement with internal and external stakeholders—including recipients and communities. Proactive engagement and partnerships with recipients will let OCR address potential discrimination before it becomes a real challenge for communities.

OCR will also work more closely with communities to make sure they understand their nondiscrimination rights, how to work more effectively with recipients to secure those rights, and how to file discrimination complaints that can withstand fundamental jurisdictional requirements. In the past, many communities filed complaints to OCR against private companies that didn’t receive federal funds. Since nondiscrimination requirements did not apply, OCR had to reject those complaints. By working with communities from the beginning, we can help make sure their concerns are directed to where they can best be resolved, and to strengthen transparency and accountability. Starting in 2016, OCR will publish an annual report to keep the public apprised of the office’s progress.

Finally, OCR is comprehensively evaluating position descriptions, skill sets, and current occupational competencies to make sure they align with OCR’s mission-critical priorities. EPA employees are the key to meeting the agency’s mission, so we’re making sure OCR staff have the training, developmental opportunities, and support they need to meet these goals.

EPA’s vision for the next five years is that OCR will have made strides toward promptly, effectively and efficiently resolving complaints. OCR will use all the tools at its disposal to resolve complaints, conduct compliance reviews and affect real change. It will have a well-established and proactive process to make sure recipients comply with nondiscrimination laws. And OCR will have a fully implemented public outreach and technical assistance program to educate recipients on their civil rights obligations, and to engage communities and empower them with civil rights information.

EPA is committed to building a model civil rights program. I’m confident that through the dedicated, expert and proactive work of our staff and the efforts of recipients and communities, we will make that vision a reality. Learn more here.

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