Fixing the SES: ‘This used to be an honor. Now it’s a joke.’

Joining the Senior Executive Service once was seen as the pinnacle of a federal career. “I coveted that little symbol you get to put on your lapel,” former SES member Ron Sanders said of the trapezoid pin that SES members receive.

The SES pin

That’s no longer the case. Fewer than half of the 152 current SES members who answered an exclusive Federal News Radio online survey said they would join today. One-third said they were not sure they would join if offered the chance. And a quarter said they would not.

“This used to be an honor. Now it is a joke,” wrote one SES member who answered “no” when asked if they would join the SES today. “Entry-level positions in the private sector earn more; spineless and reckless politicians insult and denigrate SES officials; the responsibilities and liabilities are enormous, without commensurate respect nor compensation.”

In addition to the survey, Federal News Radio interviewed more than a dozen current and former SES members for our four-part special report Fixing the SES. Here, we examine the external pressures bearing down on the SES. Over the next few weeks, we’ll hear from SES members who gave up bigger salaries and job security for the opportunities and risks of leading the government. They’ll tell us where the institution’s true weaknesses lie. They’ll also share their thoughts on possible fixes.

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Several threads emerged from our conversations with SES members. Overall, they say the SES does good, important work on behalf of the government and the American people, but that work goes largely unnoticed. Instead, they say, political leaders are missing the target by focusing on crises that involve a small number of SES members. More widespread, critical problems exist, these members said, but they are not the ones that grab headlines.

Sanders, now with Booz Allen Hamilton, believes those more mundane issues are creating a leadership gap that could harm the government over the long term.

“The problem is that it’s a slow boil. This isn’t a headline above the fold,” he said.

He has organized a group of former high-ranking federal officials to draft a blueprint for change. It’s due out later this year. The White House is chipping away at the issue with a new candidate development program and an advisory group that will look at all aspects of the SES. Sanders said he believes the Obama administration has the appetite for bigger reform.

“My own experience is, near the end of an administration — two years out, 18 months out, whatever it is — the administration starts worrying about its legacy and it becomes apparent that part of that legacy is the leaders it leaves in place,” he said.

Managing risk or risk-averse?

It’s not an easy time to be a senior executive. Recent scandals at the Veterans Affairs Department, the IRS and the General Services Administration have shone light on senior executives behaving badly and magnified the cracks in the system. Congress has responded by passing a law to hasten the firing process for senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department. The House last year approved similar legislation that would have applied to the entire Senior Executive Service but the Senate did not consider it.

“From the IRS to the VA, the American people have lost trust in the federal government to do the right thing. In many cases, these scandals have been spearheaded or continued by senior executive employees,” the sponsor, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), said at the time.

Danny Werfel, a former SES member who rose to become controller at the Office of Management and Budget and acting commissioner of the IRS before joining the Boston Consulting Group, is helping Sanders write the blueprint. He said SES members face increasing pressure to tread lightly, avoiding mistakes at all costs.

“There’s a perception that the consequences are significant if you make a mistake, even if it’s small,” he said.

As acting IRS commissioner in 2013, Danny Werfel testified frequently before Congress. (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Danny Werfel discusses the pressures on the SES and possible solutions.

Which raises this question: Is Congress, in its drive to ensure accountability, making the SES less attractive to current members and potential candidates? Or, even worse, is it forcing the SES — the cadre of federal executives who are supposed to lead the government through administrations — to change in ways the country might later regret?

When asked whether there were problems with the SES, three out of four people who answered Federal News Radio’s survey said “yes.” By and large, current SES members agreed. Sixty-two percent of them said “yes.” A quarter said they disagreed. The rest said they did not know.

(Federal News Radio, with help from the Senior Executives Association and the Federal Managers Association, conducted the online survey between Dec. 29, 2014 and Jan. 12, 2015. We received 1,205 responses from both government and non-government employees. Within government, we received responses from both current and former SES members, as well as those who have never served in the SES. Click here to see the full results.)

“Are we, the public, putting pressure to select people who are better at checking the box than taking risks?” asked David Bray, chief information officer of the Federal Communications Commission and an SES member. “Are we going to be surprised if 10, 20, 25 years from now we have people in leadership who have never taken risks, made mistakes, and how will that hurt the country?”

Federal employees who might aspire to join the SES are even more pessimistic than current members. Just 23 percent of the 559 senior and mid-career professionals — those at the General Schedule ranks of 14 and 15 — who completed the survey, said they would join the SES today if given the chance. More than half, 57 percent, said they would not. Twenty percent said they were unsure.

OPM finds troubling signs in SES exit surveys

The findings dovetail with conclusions being drawn at the Office of Personnel Management based on its exit surveys with departing SES members. Nearly half leave for jobs outside the federal government. That troubles Deputy Associate Director Steve Shih, who is responsible for human capital policy for the SES.

Steve Shih, deputy associate director, OPM, and an SES member. (Federal News Radio/Emily Kopp)
Steve Shih discusses OPM’s exit survey results.

“That’s not necessarily a very good sign for the federal government,” he said. “There’s an opportunity here, I think, to be able to retain some of these folks.”

Even though they’re about to leave, the large majority of departing members would recommend their agencies as good places to work, he said.

“They feel good about their agencies, their missions and their jobs,” he said.

But something else is compelling them to quit. For some, it’s that they’re simply getting older. While the great retirement tsunami that has been rumored for years has not materialized, the demographics are hard to ignore. Nearly half of SES members are 55 or older. Nearly a quarter, 23 percent, are over 60. For others, it’s more complicated.

“What they’re pointing to are things like the political climate, agency culture, better compensation, the desire for formal recognition or just, even, feeling more valued,” said Shih.

Bill Valdez worked at the Energy Department for 21 years, 15 of those as a member of the SES. During the best of those times, he led an influential interagency group working on science policy issues. He earned a Presidential Rank Award in 2007, an honor only 5 percent of SES members receive each year. But, over the years, he saw political appointees gaining more control over the department’s day-to-day operations, leaving the SES marginalized. That led him to retire last July.

“I was frankly tired of the grind,” he said. “When I first got in [the SES], I was doing 50 percent creative thinking, affecting policy, programs, that sort of thing. At the end, I was doing 5 percent. The other 95 percent was fire drills, dealing with personnel issues, which, of course, the politicals don’t like to do, and basic operational kinds of things. It just wasn’t fun anymore.”

As an SES member in the Energy Department, Bill Valdez participated in a U.S. delegation to China in 2009. (Bill Valdez)

Valdez now works as a business consultant at a small firm just blocks from the White House.

He is not alone in his sentiments toward political appointees. A recent survey by Vanderbilt University Professor David Lewis revealed that, compared with 2008, more senior executives today believe the White House has either “a good bit” or “a great deal” of influence over their work. In our survey, the SES members who said they were unsure or would not join if given the same opportunity today, cited “too little respect from political leaders” as the main deterrent.

“I have spent much too many years working very hard to get where I am and earned a strong reputation for someone who knows nothing about me to have that much power over me,” said one survey respondent.

Walberg’s legislation did not make it through the Democratic-led Senate last year, but Republican leaders have indicated that they will try again to craft legislation to increase accountability in the SES. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will work on a bill to make it easier to fire senior executives who act wrongly, Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said at a recent event. He also wants to see measures that would let inspectors general go after senior executives who retire when under investigation. Several employees from VA recently chose to retire rather than be terminated. The Senate, now under Republican control, is more amenable to such measures.

“Many of our civil servants in the federal government dedicate their lives to serving the American people through public policy and governance. Unfortunately, a handful in federal management positions abuse their power or perform poorly at their jobs. A weak federal civil servant in leadership diminishes the dedicated work of every person around them. When this happens, it is a waste of taxpayer money and should be addressed immediately,” said Sen. James Lankford (R- Okla.), the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management.

As a congressman last year, Lankford supported Walberg’s legislation. A spokesman said it’s too early in the Congressional session to set an agenda for the subcommittee. The scrutiny, however, doesn’t trouble all SES members. “If you’re doing a good job, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” said Barbara Sisson, a long-time SES member who is now assistant chief of the Army Reserve.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, FIXING THE SES: Part 2: Why we stay: SES in their own words Part 3: The truth about accountability