Former officials seek new course for SES

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Former government officials are diving into the debate over the future of the Senior Executive Service by drafting a blueprint for reform.

They plan to give it to “anyone who will listen,” said Ron Sanders, a former SES member who now is a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton. It is sponsoring the project with Brookings.

The group includes former deputy secretaries and other management officials who served as a link between the agenda-setting political leaders and the career executives tasked with turning those goals into reality. They held a brainstorming session Wednesday to form the basis of a strategy that will be released next spring.

Sanders sees recent scandals involving SES members at the Veterans Affairs Department and IRS as symptoms that the 35-year-old system is “becoming a bit creaky.”

Congress has singled out the SES for structural reform in recent years. But it has passed only piecemeal measures, notably legislation to make it easier for the VA to fire its senior executives. But the negative attention, added to the stress of managing through tight budgets and pay constraints, might deter up-and-coming employees from filling the SES vacancies predicted to occur as baby boomers retire, the former officials said.

“If we don’t shape the dialogue, it will turn into a more negative conversation,” said former DoD official Beth McGrath. “You had a room full of people who care deeply about this and are worried that in the near term, we won’t have the people with the right knowledge, skills and abilities to drive an efficient and effective government unless we do something. That ‘we’ is the executive branch and the legislative branch.”

That might seem like an insurmountable challenge, given relations between congressional leaders and the White House these days. But there are plenty of improvements that the executive branch could make on its own, Sanders said.

Among them:

Making it easier for senior executives to rotate positions

Sponsors of the 1979 law creating the SES envisioned a mobile cadre of top managers moving from office to office as needed. That hasn’t happened. The White House or Office of Personnel Management could set up an “enabling mechanism,” perhaps in the form of an exchange program, to encourage SES members to move around, Sanders said.

Updating the list of skills required to join the SES

Candidates should be evaluated on their abilities to manage complexity and risk and deal with transparency, Sanders said. “OPM could add those to the list of competencies that they use to assess executives tomorrow.”

It could also require candidates to demonstrate their skills, rather than simply describing them in essays. OPM could extend the probationary period for new senior executives from one to two years, Sanders said.

The White House has been quiet on the subject, but that could change soon. Next month, President Barack Obama will host a gathering of SES members for the first time in his presidency. He had proposed changes to the SES in his most recent budget plan, released earlier this year.

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