Winter 2013
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The Public Manager

Bring Generations Together by Leveraging Millennial Affinity Groups

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Use young employees' skills and voices through focus groups, testing, and special projects to bring knowledge of social media and technological trends, and a fresh perspective, to the agency.

There was a major push to form affinity groups at the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010. Affinity groups provide forums for employees to gather socially and share ideas outside of their particular business units.

Managers thought that young employees, known as Millennials because they were born near the end of the 20th century, needed their own affinity group for support in the workplace. With encouragement from her supervisor, Lorena Molina-Irizarry of the Human Resources Division attended a NextGen Summit and connected with leaders from the Environmental Protection Agency's Emerging Leaders Network (ELN). Using ELN's charter as a model, Molina-Irizarry and others created the NextGen Network @ Census.

The newly formed group received support from senior leadership—including Robert Groves, the Census Bureau's director at the time. The group held quarterly meetings to provide updates on goals and to share accomplishments. The group also had the support and backing of the Diversity and Inclusion Office at the Census Bureau.

Encouraging Millennial Group—Senior Management Collaboration

Affinity groups can present opportunities and benefits not only for members but also for senior leadership. One of the NextGen network's major platforms at its inception was recruitment and retention of employees. Members have helped recruit recent college graduates by assisting human resource professionals at career fairs. It can be reassuring for college students to see someone who recently graduated and can offer perspectives of a career in federal service.

NextGen's major vehicle to help retain Millennials is its buddy program. The program pairs new Millennials and interns with NextGen members in an informal mentoring relationship. The program affords new employees the opportunity to gain a connection and resources early in their career to acclimate them to agency culture as well as to government processes. In an agency with thousands of employees, having a peer who can answer questions aids in a sense of belonging and retention.

The NextGen Network recently hosted a "speed networking" event where it gave members a chance to interact and ask questions to Generation X employees (generally people born in the 1960s and 1970s) who have achieved success at the agency. This event was particularly successful because it gave Millennials a glimpse of success they could achieve at the Census Bureau in the next five to 10 years.

In 2013, NextGen Network @ Census revamped its vision of using the skill sets and perspectives of Millennials as a corporate resource. NextGen leadership set out on a mission to market and promote members as Millennial consultants. The organization has been testing and providing feedback for Census Bureau apps and has been giving suggestions on data dissemination. In the coming months, NextGen will participate in focus groups for the Human Resources Division and Communications Directorate.

Using Young Skills and Voices

Organizations can use young employees' skills and voices to contribute to their agencies through focus groups, testing, and special projects. Their intimate knowledge of social media and technological trends, in addition to a fresh perspective, can prove advantageous to the agencies. Using Millennials as consultants is beneficial for members because it builds their professional experiences and networks, enables them to use skills they many not use in their positions, and increases institutional knowledge.

Another way that affinity groups such as NextGen can serve their agencies is through marketing and influence. NextGen sends out a weekly newsletter that includes advertisements of upcoming events, highlights of members' accomplishments, training opportunities, and news that relates to Millennials. Most importantly, it promotes Census Bureau events and priorities and encourages employee participation. In addition to internal promotion, members are encouraged to pass along information or forward a link to hundreds of friends and associates through Facebook or Twitter with a click of a mouse.

Senior leaders should engage Millennial groups for the value members can add to agency objectives. Working with young employees is an investment in building the next generation of government leaders. Interactions, whether formal or informal, are opportunities to share institutional knowledge and provide career development opportunities.

One way that NextGen has interacted with various generations and levels of leadership is through a "leadership mixer." NextGen founded this yearly event to foster collaboration and innovation among all leaders at the Census Bureau. Small groups comprised of associate directors, middle managers, and affinity group leaders spend an hour discussing and brainstorming current issues, challenges, and opportunities. Participating in events such as the leadership mixer help give individuals an opportunity to contribute in an area outside of their divisions.

Forming an Affinity Group: Best Practices

Perhaps your agency is ready to form a group. Here are some best practices:

  • Connect with other Millennial affinity groups. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; learn from their challenges and lessons. These connections can be advantageous in sharing information and resources as well as networking with young professionals across the government.
  • Link your purpose to the senior leadership goals and initiatives found in the agency strategic plan.
  • Be prepared, do the research, and know who you are as an organization before you try to sell your group to others.
  • Utilize existing initiatives and policies such as the Diversity and Inclusion Executive Order signed by President Obama as justification and to garner support.
  • Know the process for being a formally recognized group by your department. For example, to be recognized as a voluntary employee organization through the Department of Commerce, NextGen had to submit a number of documents including current bylaws and a list of officers.
  • Find out what offices and individuals you need for support and work closely with them.
  • Be proactive in identifying improvements, solutions, and opportunities where the organization can be a resource to the agency.
  • Cross train within the organization. Generation Y employees typically change jobs every two to five years, so it is very likely that there will be turnover in the organization's leadership. Giving board members experiences outside of their elected positions ensures that the organization does not skip a beat when someone moves on.

Forming a Millennial Group: Challenges

The NextGen group at the Census Bureau was fortunate to have the backing of the director and other key players from upper management. Groups at other agencies began as more of a grassroots movement and received pushback from management. Regardless of the experience one faces, it is paramount to obtain the support of leadership at the agency or department.


In addition, it is important to identify and connect with internal and external stakeholders and potential partners. One of NextGen's first connections was with other affinity groups. This partnership provides a number of benefits. The groups use collaborative events to recruit members.

Also, affinity groups are able to take advantage of the inherent skill sets of their members. For example, by assisting affinity groups with technological challenges and helping them navigate the startup process, NextGen was able to dispel some generational misconceptions of Generation Y employees being lazy and self-centered.

Aside from having to "sell" NextGen to senior management and potential partners, the group had to convince potential members that their participation was worthwhile. They wanted to know, "What is in it for me." Recruitment in the early stages was tough and still can be a challenge.

One of the best ways to overcome this challenge is to have a clear mission and goals. Knowing who you are as an organization and what you are about is necessary for gaining support and participation. This task gets easier after you have made accomplishments and can show individuals some tangible benefits to being an active member of the organization.

In addition to the formal documentation included in the charter such as mission and goals, it is important that all leaders and active members can effectively communicate the purpose of the group in their own words.

A challenge that we are actively tackling is gaining support from middle management. This requires getting them to understand the purpose and value associated with encouraging their employees' participation. One tactic to overcome this challenge is to leverage connections with senior leadership to provide platforms, such as division meetings for the affinity group to briefly educate middle management about the purpose, benefits, and aims of the organization.

Future Opportunities

The federal government employs five generations, each with unique perspectives and experiences. Working with groups such as NextGen can help dispel generational misconceptions, aid in transfer of knowledge, and prepare the newest generation for a successful career in federal service. Our generational differences can be strengths as we approach issues from various perspectives to create a greater government for now and generations to come.

About the Author

Kiyona Miah is president of NextGen Network, an affinity group for Millennials at the U.S. Census Bureau. She joined the bureau in 2010, where she is a program analyst who handles budget execution, reporting, and control. She holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Baltimore and a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Morgan State University. Contact her at [email protected].

About the Author

Stephen L. Buckner is assistant director of communications at the U.S. Census Bureau. He is the sponsor of the bureau’s NextGen Affinity Group. Buckner holds a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Florida State University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida. Contact him at [email protected].

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