New Audit Reveals Key Gaps in Denver Equity Office

DENVER — A newly released audit made available Thursday highlighted some key discrepancies in a Denver department whose mission is to bring more fairness to city government.

The Office of Social Equity and Innovation (OSEI) was first established in September 2019. The previous year, Mayor Michael Hancock announced the creation of a nationwide equity platform of the city led by an equity leadership team.

Since then, OSEI has made it its mission to evaluate Denver’s systems, policies, and practices to increase social equity and minimize institutional, structural, or systematic racism in city government.

However, the new audit concluded that the office lacked key elements that help lay the foundations for any service within the city.

“What we found was that there was a lot of turnover in terms of leadership, but the organization has no statement of goals and objectives, no policies and procedures, no parameters to be determined, am I achieving the goals and objectives set for the organization?” said Denver auditor Timothy O’Brien.

First, the audit determined that the office lacked a detailed strategic plan and the other foundations necessary for effective governance. He concluded that the office lacked documentation of the design of the program, a city-wide strategic plan that aligns with the executive order that created it, formal policies and procedures for day-to-day operations, and a presentation. clear staff roles and responsibilities.

Second, the audit determined that OSEI did not provide sufficient clarity to hold staff accountable in their duties. He said that due to a lack of clarity, the office cannot guarantee that city agencies comply with its guidelines on things like training or creating an action plan for the racial equity.

Third, the audit revealed that the office does not have a plan to ensure clear and consistent communication with other municipal agencies. He indicated that the office generally communicates well with other agencies, but determined that there are no formal communication practices.

“They should be a lot more advanced, and those are fundamentals, they’re just building blocks of how you run an organization,” O’Brien said.

During a public presentation on Thursday, O’Brien then spoke about some of the challenges he faced in conducting this audit, saying he had not received all the documents he needed or requested to be able to do his job thoroughly.

“In carrying out the audit, we had less than full cooperation from the management of this office,” O’Brien said. “These are very difficult circumstances in which to audit.”

O’Brien says he now has access to all of the documents requested, but they have not changed his opinion or the decisions contained in the report.

Denver’s Chief Equity Office and OSEI executive director Dr. Aisha Rousseau don’t disagree with some of the report’s findings, but say it doesn’t paint a full picture of the office’s formation or challenges. he faced to boot.

“We recognize that there are fundamental things, fundamental documents, fundamental resources that need to be in place, but it would be a misnomer to perceive that this office, and the leaders of this office, were not doing work. fairness, they just weren’t doing it in the traditional sense,” Rousseau said.

Newly Released Audit Reveals Fundamental Gaps in Denver’s Equity Office

One of the biggest hurdles in the early days of the office: the coronavirus pandemic. As the City of Denver moved to quickly respond to the pandemic, much of the Equity Office staff was assigned to the Emergency Operations Center to assist with the city’s response.

Employees spent more than 200 days working within the operations center to ensure fairness and access to things like testing, vaccinations, emergency food deliveries and support for corporate-owned businesses. people of color affected by the pandemic.

“Previous leadership pivoted because it was critical to identify how communities of color could be addressed in a pandemic,” she said.

She also insists that no equity office in the country would say that this type of work is done in a linear fashion and agrees that the work may not have been done in a traditional sense, but the office worked and is still working towards its ultimate goal.

Rousseau agrees that there are areas in the report that need growth and says she is currently working on them, but she has concerns about the timing of this report, especially given the newness of the office. .

“I am very concerned about the criticism, especially from two black women who were charged with responding to building equity on a shoestring budget. I understand his concern. I don’t agree with that,” she said.

Rousseau has only been at the head of the department since last October. Two previous executive directors had already taken the helm and were blamed in the report for some of these discrepancies. However, in an interview with Denver7, O’Brien was more hesitant to point fingers, saying he was more focused on the future.

She also disagrees with O’Brien’s claims that he was uncooperative and says his staff turned everything over in a timely manner.

In a three-page letter, Mayor Hancock also disagreed with the audit schedule, saying he normally welcomes audits even if they are critical in nature, but he believes this one has been undertaken in haste and without taking into account the challenges facing OSEI.

“During the worst public health crisis in modern memory, any city agency would have failed in its duty to prioritize strategic or communications plans over the mission of the city of Denver government, to do everything possible, to supporting our residents during these difficult times while absorbing emergency budget cuts,” the letter read.

He went on to say that the audit was premature and that doing it later, when OSEI was more established and better integrated with city services, would have provided a much more beneficial examination of how things could be improved.

The report sets out a series of recommendations for the office to follow to better lay the foundation for its policies in the future. The office does not disagree with the recommendations and will endeavor to implement them.

O’Brien and Rousseau agree that the office has an important role to play in the city, Rousseau simply points out that it will take time to get there.

“We are talking about changing the course of a ship that is 100 years old and so my team is committed to providing these foundational documents because we recognize that is important,” she said.

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