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New Report Calls for Improvements to Senior Executive Service

By Ed O'Keefe

The Senior Executive Service is broken, mired in tired bureaucratic traditions and failing to attract top talent from outside government, according to a lengthy review of the ranks of the government's elite managers by two outside organizations.

The report, from the good-government group Partnership for Public Service and the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, will be released Thursday. It comes amid new plans to reshape how the Office of Personnel Management oversees the roughly 7,000 career federal executives in the SES.

The service was established in the late 1970s during the Carter administration’s civil service reform efforts, and its advocates hoped it would lead to a promotion system much like the military's, in which officers are promoted to generals only after serving in various capacities and different locations.

Instead, the study reports, civilian senior executives have mostly opted to stay put within one agency, ascending its chain of command. Senior managers “have been viewed primarily as agency-specific assets, not federal or national assets,” according to the report.

The study's authors spent more than a year analyzing available OPM and agency data, and conducting interviews and focus groups with current and former SES members, academics, lawmakers and human resources experts.

The SES “receives way too little attention and needs to be overhauled in a very consequential way,” said Max Stier, president of the partnership.

The report includes several recommendations, including one that would shorten the application process. The current setup relies too much on jargon-laced job descriptions and written essays that deter qualified private-sector candidates, some of whom hire writers to complete the application, according to the report.

The study’s authors also suggest that OPM establish an “elite corps” of managers that could regularly move across agencies, as originally intended. But such a move could be impractical, according to former senior executives.

“Part of the reason that people don’t move is they get comfortable in a particular agency, they learn the policy issues and the policy challenges in a particular area, and they feel like that’s their comfort zone,” said Joseph A. Ferrara, a former Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget official who is now associate dean of Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.

“I got promoted because I become an expert in the policies in that area, not because I’m such a great executive who can go anywhere and do anything,” Ferrara said.

Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said she has seen more senior executives move around in recent years than in the past. Still, “mobility can be overrated, because you really can’t discount the importance of knowing the agency’s business. How many executives should be playing musical chairs?” she asked.

Part of the challenge is that OPM has failed to offer senior executives more mobility, Bonosaro said. “If an executive was applying to another agency, very often the reaction was, ‘There must be something wrong with this applicant.’ ”

OPM should instead identify qualified executives to reassign either temporarily or permanently, she said, especially during natural disasters, national emergencies or when an agency is adopting technologies or policies already in use at other agencies.

OPM will begin to tackle these issues in a more organized fashion under plans unveiled Wednesday by director John Berry.

The new SES office will serve as "a central crossroads in the federal government for senior executive service issues, like the ones raised by the Partnership, that regularly come up," Berry said in an interview, stressing he considers SES essential to federal government operations.

Stier expressed support for Berry's new efforts and the government's renewed focus on the government's senior executives.

“At the end of the day, these are the people that are the leadership over time. They’re not there for 18 months to two years like political appointees," Stier said. "They’re there running the show, year-in and year-out, and we need to be taking care of them.”

Read the full report here.

By Ed O'Keefe  | August 19, 2009; 5:18 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues  
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Government agencies live and die by the regulations governing various programs. The biggest problem I faced with SES-level people during my time with the Feds was that they didn't understand enough about the way regulations were put together, and that we as employees were required by law in most instances to follow the regulations. They either expected us to break the regulations outright, or else they didn't want to exercise the management discretion which was within their power to waiver those regulations when it was legal and sensible to do so, as recommended by their own staff. So, you wound up being whip-sawed from one extreme to the next, even by the same person, and even more so after personnel transitions. The SES should be abolished and replaced with the old system of 15s, 16s and 17s. The real reform needs to occur at the other end of the payscale. It should be much easier than it is for outside people to enter middle management, because this is where the real impacts can be made- at the working level, not at the top. Personnel rules need to be revised to allow clear standards for evaluating equivalent private industry experience, which is not possible with the KSAs and other garbage used to hire people to Civil Service jobs.

Posted by: ripvanwinkleincollege | August 19, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Amen to the previous poster. The hiring process for civil-service entry-level and middle-management jobs immediately convinces anyone with a half-marketable brain that they do *NOT* want to work for such a broken organization. Who wants to write 15 pages of KSA essays that probably won't even get read if a couple of 10-point veterans also apply (and there's *always* a couple of 10-point veterans applying)?

And don't get me started on the poorly written, incomprehensible job description that are the norm on USAjobs. And the jobs that are only advertised for a few days, as a pro-forma measure to justify hiring the good-ole-boy insider they've already selected.

The fact that the SES hiring and assignment system is broken is just the icing on the dysfunctional cake.

It's not like there aren't well known and widely understood commercial best practices for hiring; it's just that the Government has *way* too much inertia to even think about using them. So they keep asking every applicant to write a novel, with the slimmest of chances that the "novel" will even land them an interview.

Posted by: DupontJay | August 19, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

The article seems to push "super managers" that will move from Agency to Agency with ease. Each move would require learning a new organization's structure and culture, earning their respect from ground zero, making new political alliances. It might also be a geographic move impacting the entire family. As long as the pay for being in SES is only marginally better than a GS 15 step 10, why would anyone signup for being jerked around every few years?

Posted by: oneball | August 20, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

It general ripvanwinkle is right on the mark; true improvement would be to foster better mid-level workforce. SES's moving around is NOT the answer; it's just another determinant in the fraternal rewards system (same is the Military fraternity), identifying who is a team player (i.e., in-my-pocket). And it's true that those roaming political appointees (SES) do disrupt agency/office stability and thus cause internal disruption. The real reason for roaming SES and Colnels/Generals is to allow shaking up any stable organization that does not kowtow to the current leadership. Therefore most SES are more concerned in how they are viewed by upper management/political staffers, and not honestly with agency's performance under established law, regulations or public- good precedent. Political favoritism and discouraging any non-followers has principally ruined the Federal and Military systems. Have we leaned nothing in past decades of our overall ethics decline? No wonder the cited reports sponsor a more self-edifying SES system, since considered bedfellows with D.C. management elitists. Opportunity for critical journalism if you dare (LOL).

Posted by: CERetiree | August 20, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Agree with oneball; I am a GS15 paid at the top of the scale and with retention bonuses (not available to SES) my salary tops out at $162,360. That's a whooping $540 below the $162,900 maximum for an agency without a certified performance appraisal system. Even the $177,000 max for agencies with a certified performance appraisal system offers only the potential for a minimal pay increase, and is not nearly enough for me to put up with the headaches of an SES position.

Posted by: KHAQQ | August 20, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

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