SES Executive Order a nice first step, but it doesn’t address real reforms

Jeri Buchholz, a strategic business development adviser for FMP Consulting and a retired chief human capital officer, argues the White House needs to ‘dig de...

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means …
— Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride”

Many of you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride.” In that movie the bad guy, Vizzini, keeps saying “inconceivable” each time the Dread Pirate Roberts accomplishes some superhuman feat. After a few rounds of this, the swashbuckling Inigo Montoya turns to him and says (in one of the most famous quotes from the movie), “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I’m all for reform. I’ll take human resources reform in almost any form or format. If you had told me more than 30 years ago at the beginning of my HR career that on the day I retired, I would be using the same rules that I used in 1984, my response would have been: “inconceivable!”

Jeri Buchholz is a strategic business development advisor for FMP Consulting

And yet, here we are.

The White House’s Executive Order on Senior Executive Service is being released soon. After seeing President Barack Obama speak last December, and hearing him talk about his desire for changes to the Senior Executive Service and creation of an advisory committee for that purpose, I was hopeful for genuine reform like:

  • Legal changes that acknowledge SES work programs and projects, and therefore should be hired for the duration of programs and projects and receive performance feedback and pay increase based on the cycle of those programs and projects (rather than on an artificial annual basis).
  • Regulatory changes that would redefine our current definitions of competition and allow for the use of modern hiring tools that other large entities are using like LinkedIn.
  • Regulatory changes that would eliminate the government-level Qualifications Review Board (QRB) and delegate that responsibility to heads of agencies.
  • Regulatory changes that would allow for rotations of six to 12 months (versus the current limit of 120 days) — a long enough period for true learning.
  • Policy changes that would allow heads of federal agencies to rebalance their portfolio of leaders (SES, SL, ST) without going to OPM.
  • Policy changes that would eliminate the requirement to recertify your SES performance management system every one or two years to perhaps a review once an administration.
  • Policy changes that would acknowledge that there are actually only two Executive Core Qualifications — leading people and being results driven. The others — building coalitions, leading change and business acumen — are subsets of those two.

In other words, transformative changes to law, regulation or policy.

The things that are in the Executive Order — gradually increasing pay, establishing a talent and succession management process (including rotational assignments), regular review of SES hiring at the deputy secretary level and tools to support that tracking and enhancing executive onboarding —are all great ideas; best practices. Which is why I made sure that we did those things at both of the agencies where I served as a senior human capital professional. We could always do these things and many of us did.

So why an Executive Order to do things we can already do? How is that reform? I do not think that word means what they think it means.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this Executive Order is a nice thing. Without question we should share best practices and we should ensure that we are all helping each other implement those best practices across government. But I can’t help thinking, is this simply distracting us for digging deep and doing the hard work we need to do to genuinely reform federal employment?

I am hoping that this Executive Order will turn out to be the first step down a path to actual reform, particularly when so much of the needed reform of the SES is government policy and not law or regulation.

Jeri Buchholz is a strategic business development advisor 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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