Do leaders have the stomach for real SES reform?

Commentary by Carol Bonosaro
President, Senior Executives Association

This column was written in response to Federal News Radio’s special report, Fixing the SES: a four-part series examining the real problems facing the group from those who know it best — the people who live it every day.

The Senior Executive Service “used to be an honor and now it’s a joke,” according to an SES member responding to a recent Federal News Radio survey. Yet, in spite of all of the problems facing the corps, senior executives are inspired to serve.

It’s a paradox, but, in the end, the opportunities to serve at the highest levels and to make a difference overcome the challenges.

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Courtesy of SEA

Indeed, almost from the beginning, “politicians, think tanks and consultants have been trying to make [the SES] better,” as Emily Kopp points out in part 3 of her report. This year, too, a number of organizations and individuals are busy drafting their prescriptions to fix the SES. Some believe the corps needs fixing. Others say that a good many executives need fixing.

If there is to be major reform, however, we need the appetite to carefully consider what problem, exactly, we are solving, what we want the SES to be and how best to get there.

I’m uncertain whether the reformers will address the need to fix what actually ails the SES — the very real problems highlighted in this series and ones which the Senior Executives Association has been addressing for years: inadequate compensation, reckless political attacks, a lack of respect and recognition, and political appointees who have assumed more of the leadership opportunities once reserved for career executives.

There is no doubt that these problems are influencing executives to leave and earn more in the private sector, as OPM’s exit surveys document; that Congress, with punitive legislation and a focus on a handful of senior executives accused of wrongdoing, has created pressure that inhibits risk-taking and innovation; and that many talented, able GS-14s and 15s are not attracted to serving in the SES. In fact, only 24 percent of General Schedule employees who took the Federal News Radio survey said they would join.

Carol Bonosaro speaks with Emily Kopp about the appetite for SES reform.

If this continues, the SES may well “change in ways the country might later regret,” as Emily examines in part 1 of her report. We will lose the critical institutional memory, the continuity, and the “stable counterbalance” to short-term political and military leaders.

By the time this “slow boil” reaches a crisis point, it may well be too late to undo the long-term damage. The career federal executive corps is not seen, much less treated, as the valuable human resource it represents, one that is critical to delivering effective, efficient services to the American people.

Of course, the SES system could benefit from some immediate fixes, but they are relatively minor.

What’s urgently required is to grow leaders (identify them, nurture them and invest in their development); provide Presidential recognition to inspire interest in serving (bestow the full number of Rank Awards that are deserved); stop artificially depressing pay adjustments and performance awards; and encourage calculated risk, which means accepting the possibility of failure.

None of that requires legislation. As for reducing the number of political appointees, I’m not so foolish as to have hope.

Above all, stop the beatings and morale will improve.


Carol Bonosaro is the president of the Senior Executives Association. Bonosaro was a federal employee and member of the SES until her retirement in 1986. During her federal service, Bonosaro worked at the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) as well as at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.