SES members troubled by prospect of at-will employment

A new survey shows just how jittery Senior Executive Service members are following a landmark law targeting SES members in the Veterans Affairs Department. When...

While some in Congress wring their hands at what they see as a lack of accountability among the government’s top civil servants, a group representing Senior Executive Service members is warning that moves toward “at-will employment” would endanger not only the SES, but the government as a whole.

“[It] will gut the SES. No one in their right mind would want to join or stay in the SES,” said one person quoted by the Senior Executives Association in a new report.

The SEA late last summer queried nearly 500 of its members, both current federal employees and retirees. At the time, Congress, outraged over delays in patient care at the Veterans Affairs Department, had just passed a bill to let VA Secretary Bob McDonald fire SES members without going through a lengthy appeals process. The SEA feared more bills would follow, said Carol Bonosaro, the group’s president.

That fear has not been realized. Yet senior executives’ jitters are palpable in the comments and statistics cited in the SEA report. When asked about at-will employment, SES members overwhelmingly questioned their choice to join the elite group of career executives and said they were reluctant to recommend their career path to others.

“This will make it very difficult to recruit the talent we need to lead and sustain our federal workforce,” wrote one respondent.

The vast majority surveyed — 87 percent of the current federal employees and 77 percent of retirees — said legislation that erodes their due-process rights would politicize the SES, which is supposed to be a steady, apolitical counterweight to the political appointees who come and go with every presidential administration.

“At-will employment defeats the entire purpose of the career SES corps — to be independent from partisan politics and to pursue doing what is right for the taxpayers and their agency,” said one person.

“SESers will no longer have the courage to do the right things for the right people. They will be forced to compromise their integrity, honesty and moral responsibility,” said another.

According to the survey, most senior executives said any new law was unnecessary because their agencies already hold them accountable for their performance and conduct. When there is a lack of accountability, however, they tend to blame it on supervisors’ lack of will or awareness.

Under at-will employment …

Source: Senior Executives Association

Concern about administration’s appetite to stand up for SES

It’s no surprise that SES members do not like the idea of at-will employment when it comes to their jobs. When given a choice, who wouldn’t prefer to have more job protections rather than fewer?

Bonosaro acknowledged as much, but said she hoped the report would give members of Congress pause when considering SES-related legislation.

“I realize that there are some on the Hill who could care less about whether morale is high or low or people are leaving or staying. But I think they have to stop and think about the ultimate impact on what it is they’re hoping to improve,” she said.

In recognition of the challenges facing the SES, the White House has created an advisory panel to recommend possible changes. While she would like the group to take a soup-to-nuts approach, Bonosaro said she had doubts that it would.

“I’m not at all certain there will be a full-blown report to the President,” she said. “My sense is there’s a greater predilection for looking at pilot projects that could be carried out to demonstrate the viability of this, that or the other new idea. That concerns me because there are some things that could be done easily.”

For example, she said, the Obama administration could focus on leadership development and give presidential rank awards and performance awards when they are deserved.

And if legislation that strips SES members of due process rights makes its way to the Oval Office, President Barack Obama should veto it, she said.

SEA President Carol Bonosaro joins Federal News Radio Senior Correspondent Mike Causey on Your Turn on Wednesday, April 1, at 10 a.m. EST. Send in your questions to before the show or call toll-free during the show: 1-866-468- 1050.


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