Act now before SES positions are frozen leading up to presidential election

Jeri Buchholz, strategic business development adviser, FMP Consulting

Can you spell M-O-R-A-T-O-R-I-U-M?

I can’t. I had to spell check it to get it right. That’s because it only rolls around about every eight years and even for those of us with long government service, it always caught us by surprise.

So what is moratorium? A moratorium occurs when the agency’s head announces his or her departure. In response, the Office of Personnel Management suspends processing of Senior Executive Service (SES) applications by the Qualifications Review Board (QRB) to ensure that the incoming head of agency will have the full opportunity to make or approve executive decisions that will impact the agency during his or her term of service. Generally, following a presidential election there is a governmentwide moratorium.

Jeri Buchholz, Associate Administrator for OEM, studio portrait Aug. 10, 2011 at NASA Headquarters. Photo Credit: (NASA/Paul E. Alers)
Jeri Buchholz, a strategic business development adviser for FMP Consulting and former chief human capital officer at NASA.

The presidential election is over a year away. Why care now?

Can’t we care about this later?

We’re really busy right now. Big things are happening. We’ve got an agency to run.

Talk to us later!

Later may be too late. When a moratorium is imposed, all hiring for SES positions for the federal government ceases. No new SES employees may be appointed, either from outside the government or from within the ranks of the government.

When moratorium hits, unless you start poaching from other federal agencies, the SES corps you have on board is who you’ve got until your new head of agency reports for duty.

The average number of days to fill a head of agency position at a change of administration is 238. Add this to the average number of days that head of agency positions sits vacant at the end of an administration and you’re looking at a substantial period of time your agency may be in moratorium. Just to make things extra exciting, the last governmentwide moratorium was imposed on Dec. 18, 2008 — just in time for retirement season.

As a federal leader, you have the unique responsibility to not just prepare your agency for the arrival of the transition team, but also to lead your agency through the full period of transition. Oh, and you are also going to continue to deliver your important mission at the same time.

Ummm, and don’t forget you will be attending an exhausting round of retirement parties and waving goodbye to the people you thought were going to help you with this.

So what can you do now to ensure that you and your agency are prepared to sail smoothly through this enormous change that we absolutely know, 100 percent for sure, is coming?

  1. Manage your SES positions and the time of your HR office’s executive resources people wisely. Prioritize positions that will require broad search outside your current SES corps — especially those where you are planning to do a board public search.
  2. This October (yes, I mean 2015) during your SES performance conversations, explain how presidential transition impacts the SES and ask people about their plans. Are they planning to stay with your agency through the end of 2017?
  3. Wrap up your SES career development program (CDP) no later than September 2017 and get those candidate through a QRB. This will give you a pool of new talent you can tap into without further competition.
  4. Think about your SES retirees and other alumni. Get in touch with them now and use social media to maintain an ongoing relationship with them.
  5. Consider incentivizing SES to retire in the spring of 2016 through an early out window rather than having them wait until December when moratorium will likely already be in place.

Most importantly, don’t be surprised. Effort and thought on this issue now will pay off abundantly later. Pay it forward for yourself and everyone will thank you!


Jeri Buchholz is a strategic business development adviser for FMP Consulting and recently retired after 34 years in government. She formerly served as the chief human capital officer for NASA, and as the associate director for HR operations and policy at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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