American Banker
by Orson Aguilar and Tunua Thrash-Ntuk

Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act in an effort to remedy critical failures and implicit bias in our financial system. A key part of that effort is now approaching a crossroads. If all goes well, we could establish standards that lead to a more vibrant, diverse and responsive banking sector. The alternative is that yet another set of well-meaning reforms will wind up as little more than feel-good rhetoric.

We are referring to the Offices of Minority and Women Inclusion, established in eight financial agencies and twelve Federal Reserve banks under Sec. 342 of Dodd-Frank. The offices were created to bolster diversity within the agencies and the firms they regulate.  Congress recognized that communities of color had been targeted for predatory lending and were among the groups hit hardest by the financial crisis, which wiped away decades of progress since the passage of fair housing laws in the 1960s. Lawmakers understood that including diverse voices in the management of both financial businesses and the agencies that regulate them could promote sustainable banking practices aimed at communities of color and low- to moderate-income Americans, helping our whole economy.

One year ago, the OMWIs in six of those agencies issued a set of proposed standards designed to guide improvements in workforce and supplier diversity for nearly 70,000 regulated institutions. These interagency standards, set to be finalized before the end of the year, represent a historic opportunity to make real progress in expanding the role of women and people of color in the financial sector. They can spur the creation of diversity initiatives that work in the real world and make the whole industry stronger. But the standards will only achieve these goals if they have real teeth.

Unfortunately, while the draft standards contain some excellent language on diversity best practices, they are disappointingly short on specifics. History tells us that what gets measured gets done. While the OMWIs are not empowered to enforce diversity practices, nothing in the law prevents them from creating stringent, transparent standards for reporting and disclosure. For that reason, we have joined with other advocates to propose the following changes for the final standards:

Mandate reporting.
The proposed standards allow regulated entities to conduct self-assessments on employee and supplier diversity and voluntarily submit these findings to the agencies. But self-assessments open the door for institutions to offer spin rather than data. Meanwhile, a voluntary submission policy invites the poorest-performing entities to simply disregard the OMWIs, rendering the standards meaningless. Instead of voluntary self-assessments, the OMWIs should issue a mandatory data call for regulated entities.

Standardize assessments of regulated entities.
Because the draft standards read more as a list of recommended best practices than as a set of standards, financial institutions are likely to report on initiatives that present the company in the best light rather than provide hard data. Issuing a standard data call will create a transparent benchmark for industry, allowing the OMWIs to compare similar institutions and saving regulators a lot of time and resources as they sort through 70,000 reports.

Clarify the language of the standards and establish clear next steps in data collection.
The final standards should outline specific procedures for the data collection process and provide a timeline for the process to ensure that the assessments are consistent. The OMWIs should also establish regular periods during which they will ask financial institutions for their personnel and supplier diversity information, receive the data and publish the results.

Establish an advisory committee knowledgeable in diversity issues.
A committee that includes representatives from the nonprofit, private and academic sectors could help the OMWIs better understand diversity and inclusion in the financial sector as well as existing best practices in other fields, helping them to craft more precise questions that yield more useful data.

Increase public access to data on regulated entities.
Several California regulatory bodies have taken major strides in diversity programming simply by making industry reports public. Without requiring quotas, mandates, penalties, or endangering trade secrets, the OMWIs can use transparency to incentivize regulated entities to increase their utilization of minorities and women.

Leaders of the financial regulatory agencies have long pledged their support of diversity and inclusion initiatives. We now have an irreplaceable opportunity to make those pledges concrete. To accomplish this, agency leaders must give the OMWIs full support to make the final standards quantifiable and as strong as possible.