Senior executives say it’s harder to fill their shoes these days

Senior Executive Service members say it has gotten harder to fill SES spots and similar positions over the past two years, according to a survey by the Senior E...

It has become lonelier at the top of the federal food chain. Senior Executive Service members say it has gotten harder to fill SES spots and similar positions over the past two years, according to a survey by the Senior Executives Association.

More than three-quarters of the respondents said they were concerned about their agencies’ abilities to hire SES and Senior Professional positions. That does not bode well for the future of the executive corps. More than half of current SES members could retire now if they chose.

“In short, the continued brain-drain of existing Senior Executives and Senior Professionals, combined with the increasing paucity of interest among high quality candidates to replace them, spells deepening, urgent trouble for the career leadership corps and the critical government programs and processes it manages,” the report concludes.

The SEA attributed the decline in interest to uncertainty about the federal budget and a tense political climate. Congressional micromanagement and negativity discourages potential SES applicants, according to 80 percent of the survey respondents. To a lesser extent, so does a heightened emphasis on inspector-general investigations and complaints. Most of the respondents said these factors also inhibited risk taking, creativity and innovation and encouraged SES members to leave the government.

More than half of the respondents said the political climate within their agencies also turned off potential SES candidates.

“There is no longer any prestige associated with this once elite cadre. I tell talented GS-15 about the private sector, where the same level of responsibility (as SES) comes with 3-15 times the annual salary,” wrote one respondent.

The findings dovetail with an online survey that Federal News Radio conducted at the beginning of this year.  Less than half of the SES members who responded to the survey said they would join today.

A hiring headache

Most of the roughly 500 SES members, Senior Professionals and others who responded to the survey in August said the SES hiring process lasted so long that it deterred qualified candidates.

“It took me about 9 months to work through the process. Most candidates do not have the time or patience to do this,” one survey respondent wrote.

There is a chicken-or-egg debate. A sizable minority of those surveyed — 43 percent — said the hiring process took so long because enough highly qualified candidates couldn’t be found. They thought more highly of internal candidates than those from the outside, but thought agency pipelines were too weak.

When asked why they thought more good candidates failed to seek SES jobs, more than half of respondents cited the pay. Even though SES jobs pay better than those at the top of the General Schedule scale, respondents said they did not think the relatively small pay raise attracted candidates.  Other factors cited as problems include the performance management system and impact on families.

“Work-life balance is critical to our up and coming superstars — and there is none in the SES environment,” wrote one respondent.

When they encouraged colleagues to apply for the SES, 47 percent of respondents said their colleagues responded with interest most of the time.

A plea for love and resources

SEA used the report to call on the White House, agencies and Congress to double down on succession planning and boost resources and skills training for SES members and candidates. SES members need the authority to do their jobs well, the report said. It urged leaders to show greater support and recognition of SES members’ accomplishments.

SES candidates should have more opportunities to gain the complex skills, such as leading a multigenerational workforce, that they’d need as SES members, the report says.

“We have an excellent cadre of GS-15’s but most lack hands-on experience to step in now to do what’s needed,” wrote one respondent.

The report also recommended the Office of Personnel Management work with agencies to simplify the job application process.

Progress can be made with “relatively small investments of resources and commitment,” it said.

President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 a plan to reinvigorate the SES.  Since then, the White House has launched a small candidate development program to give future SES applicants experience on complex, multiagency programs. It also assembled an advisory group of two dozen federal employees to study and recommend changes to the SES.

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