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How to fix the SES: Wipe the slate clean

Former Senior Executive Service members now at Deloitte Consulting recently examined the list of qualifications for joining the service. It includes dozens of characteristics under broad rubrics like “Leading Change” and “Business Acumen.” But the consultants found a key requirement missing. “The notion of speaking truth to power and challenging the way it’s been done, challenging authority and differences of opinions,” said David Dye, who once was a psychologist at the Office of Personnel Management, and now directs the firm’s federal human capital practice. “We call this one ‘rabble rousing.'” Political leaders of all stripes long have called for reforming the SES. It is not the nimble, cross-discipline cadre of leaders that the Congress of 1978 envisioned when it drafted the law creating the service. Members are highly experienced in their fields, but they tend to stay put at their agencies rather than moving to wherever they are most needed. Recent scandals have magnified the cracks in the system. SES members have taken the blame for big, public failures from extravagant training conferences to the mistreatment of patients at VA health centers. The fixes proposed by politicians and outside reformers generally fall into one of two categories. The first, favored by many congressional Republicans, is to give agency leaders more tools to discipline SES members when things go wrong. The second, in numerous documents from Deloitte and other consultants, focuses on how the service should change to embody that original vision of the 1978 Congress. All wrong, according to Jeri Buchholz, chief human capital officer at NASA and an SES member. “We should just, clean sheet of paper, going forward, think about what it is that we want the career executive service of the federal government to be,” she said. “I haven’t really heard much talk about what it should be if it could be anything we want it to be.” In part four of Federal News Radio’s special report, Fixing the SES, we asked current and former members to imagine the slate wiped clean. How could a corps of nonpolitical, long-term federal executives best help the government serve the American people? “It may require changes in leadership, a new breed of workers in the federal government, people who think differently,” said Joe Ward, the director of the Interior Business Center and an SES member. “It can be done, but not without some bruises along the way and with strong, visible leadership support. Without that, we’re just talking.” Hence the rabble rousing. “Speaking truth to power” No one likes being the bearer of bad news. Beth McGrath, a former SES member in the Defense Department who also served as a political appointee before joining Deloitte, remembers when DoD technology experts refused to admit there were problems in a major IT program. They insisted they could meet their goals without delay.

Beth McGrath (DoD File Photo)
“In fact, there was a fundamental problem and they were never going to get there,” she said. When things go wrong, someone usually had at least an inkling about it. “Someone knew something and they didn’t feel comfortable to say it in more detail. That has to change,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re stewards of taxpayer dollars. We have an obligation to make the best decision we can with the information we have.” “I don’t know if it’s a competency as much as environmental,” she added. In other words, SES members have to be willing to take risks. And the government has to let them do so. Diversity: Skin deep and deeper The SES also should be more diverse, not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of experiences and perspectives, these members say. “There are many benefits to having diversity, especially diversity of experience,” said Ward. “The more diversity at the table, the better the outcome.” The SES is much more white and male than the rest of the federal workforce. But more than that, there’s a perception that members lack the breadth of experience that would give them the know-how to address challenges that cut across agency lines, from stemming illegal immigration to building and operating complex technology like the federal health insurance marketplace, HealthCare.gov.

It’s why some outside experts would like to see SES members rotate from job to job the way military officers do. It’s also why, when younger employees ask for career advice from Barbara Sisson, assistant chief of the Army Reserve and an SES member, she tells them to leave the government. “I say, ‘Go into the private sector for a while and learn how the real world works,'” she said. “I learned a ton and came back to government a much better civil servant for knowing how things work in the private sector.” “I wish we had a more permeable membrane by which people could come in and out of the federal service,” she said. Embracing or at least understanding technology Technology has shifted the way the government does business. Sometimes, it appears as though the executives in charge haven’t caught up. HealthCare.gov was not the first federal Web portal to botch its launch in a public way. An enhanced version of the federal jobs portal USAJobs.gov had a similarly early fail before rebounding. From the Veterans Affairs Department’s efforts to process disability claims to the Office of Personnel Management’s system for handling retirees’ pensions, the government repeatedly has stumbled on major technology projects. “Public-facing organizations need more of a customer focus,” said McGrath. “To drive that type of monumental change within an agency that has a workforce that has been there a long time — how do you do that successfully and effectively? How do you deal with kids who think so differently than you do?”

David Bray (Federal News Radio/Emily Kopp)
To many of the older SES members, David Bray is one of those kids. At 37, the chief information officer of the Federal Communications Commission is on the younger side of the SES’ age spectrum. He embraces the concept of a clean slate, but wonders whether anyone in a position of power has the patience to tackle it. He sees technology changing the government in two fundamental ways. First, it enables people to do more things for themselves that the government used to do. The FCC has launched an open-source app that lets people test the speed of their Internet connections and send the data to the FCC, rather than the commission having to do the testing on its own. Second, Bray said, technology should let the government automate more of its rote work, freeing up its employees to be more creative. “We’ve not had these conversations and we’re burdened by legacy. Rarely does someone say, ‘You don’t have to do this anymore,'” he said. “Usually it’s, ‘Keep everything you’ve been doing since the 1850s, the 1900s, since the 1950s, since the 2000s and add this too.'” “Having that conversation about what to stop doing and what to do within the context of the problem we’re trying to solve, that will help us make progress,” he said. OK. Now what? Only Congress can address certain issues that factor into this conversation. For example, SES members do not get the general raises, cost-of-living allowances or job protections enjoyed by federal employees in the General Schedule ranks. Instead, SES members’ compensation is, in theory, based on their job performance. In reality, budgetary and legal constraints mean they make only slightly more than senior General Schedule employees. In some cases they make less. The imbalance, coupled with the added responsibility of being an SES member, is a turn off for many who would otherwise aspire to SES ranks. More than half — 57 percent — of federal employees at GS-14 and GS-15 ranks who completed an exclusive Federal News Radio survey said they would not choose to join the SES today. When asked why not, they listed “not enough compensation” second, behind “too little respect from political leaders.” “I make $165,000,” wrote one Defense Department employee who described themselves as a GS-15 Step 10, the highest level of the General Schedule ranks. “For the slight difference in pay, I don’t have to testify to Congress or worry about the broad spectrum of problems/issues.” “Compensation needs to be sufficient to make the hassle worth while [sic],” they wrote.
Eddie Ribas (Emily Kopp/Federal News Radio)
“It does hinder our ability to recruit and retain some of the best and brightest,” said Eddie Ribas, an SES member and the chief human capital officer at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “We’ve needed some sort of human resources reform. It’s been a long time.” Past legislative efforts have either stalled or nibbled at parts of the problem rather than tackling it head on. He’s not sure it has to be a grand gesture, like the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 that created the SES. “The Civil Service Enhancement Act of 2015, how about that?” he asked. “We could look at how we compensate the federal workforce, how we reward the federal workforce, how we hire, how we do all the things to build the best future-oriented federal workforce.” But it’s unclear whether any lawmaker in Congress wants to take on major reform. Recent legislation has focused on a corner of the SES puzzle: accountability. Today, for example, the House is scheduled to consider the latest move in that direction, a bill that would let Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald take back bonuses and awards paid to certain senior executives. SES initiatives in the Obama administration’s final years President Barack Obama has acknowledged the shortcomings of the SES. The Office of Personnel Management is planning to improve leadership training “including an emphasis on diversity and the changing needs of the 21st century workforce,” according to the President’s proposed budget. OPM is also chipping away at the problem through more than a half-dozen initiatives. The wide-ranging list includes pilot programs to reduce the months it takes agencies to hire executives. There are online training programs, an onboarding program for new SES members, and a mentoring program that enables newer members to call seasoned pros in other agencies for quick advice. The White House also has convened an advisory group whose members include both senior executives and those who aspire to join the SES. The group is taking a soup-to-nuts approach to studying recruitment, hiring, development and retention, according to the administration. Later this year, the White House will launch a new rotational program to prepare SES candidates to tackle governmentwide problems. Taken together, the efforts “are designed to renew and invigorate the prestige of not only serving in the SES but also public service,” said OPM Deputy Associate Director Steve Shih, who manages the federal SES program. But some see these initiatives as too little, too late.
Danny Werfel (AP File Photo)
“The plan President Obama introduced today might have worked if he introduced it when he first came into office almost six years ago, fresh off his promise to “transform Washington” and “make government cool again.” But he’s introducing a plan that will take several years to execute, with only 25 months to make it happen,” wrote Federal News Radio Host Francis Rose in a widely-read commentary published in December, after Obama addressed SES members for the first time in his presidency. Others are more forgiving. Danny Werfel is even hopeful. A former SES member who also served as the Office of Management and Budget controller and the acting head of the IRS in the aftermath of scandal there, Werfel has participated in several advisory groups. “This group could do amazing things. They could drive important analytics and seed important ideas for transformation,” he said. “Or they could get together and discuss the color of the table.” “For me, the idea is good. If the execution is very good, it could reap a lot of potential benefits for the incoming administration, whomever that will be,” he added. The story has yet to be written. MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, FIXING THE SES: Part 1: SES ‘used to be an honor. Now it’s a joke.’ Part 2: Why we stay: SES in their own words Part 3: The truth about accountability