Higher SES bonus limits, onboarding initiatives highlights of executive order

Gratitude — and optimism —marked the White House’s reveal of a new executive order, which outlines reforms to recruit, develop and retain current and future members of the Senior Executive Service.

“We cannot win the future with a government of the past,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told a group of federal leaders at an “Unlocking the Full Potential of America’s Federal Workforce event Dec. 15. “Today’s executive order is an important step toward fostering the leaders of tomorrow, drawing on the successes of today, preparing our government for the challenges of the next decade of the 21st century.”

Agencies have four specific requirements under a new executive order President Barack Obama signed Tuesday:

  1. Streamline the SES hiring process
  2. Develop plans to rotate employees through different departments, agencies, subcomponents and functional areas
  3. Increase spending on performance awards
  4. Increase the initial basic pay rate for SES, senior level (SL) and scientific and professional positions.

Perhaps most notably, the order reinstates agencies’ aggregate spending limits from 2010 on performance awards for SES employees —from the current 4.8 percent cap to 7.5 percent, starting in fiscal 2017. OPM will issue more guidance on how agencies should distribute these awards for 2016 — as well as the following years — within 120 days, the order said.

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Tim Dirks, president of the Senior Executives Association, said raising the performance award caps was one of the most significant changes he saw in the final executive order to the draft that circulated last month.

“The reason it’s in the final is because that’s what SEA recommended, lifting or an increase in the cap,” he said. “That was one of our key and most emphasized recommendations. We are pleased that the cap has been increased from [roughly] 5 percent to 7.5.”

OPM will help agencies deliver on four other initiatives — establish a talent management and succession planning process, designate specific ownership of recruiting and hiring, create and onboarding program and improve professional development opportunities — in phases. According to the order, seven of the 24 Chief Financial Officers Act agencies will implement these initiatives in fiscal 2016. Seven more will follow in 2017, with the rest in 2018.

It also creates a subcommittee within the President’s Management Council, which will advise the Office of Personnel Management, the council at large and the President on the SES and how agencies are implementing the executive order. The OPM director, OMB deputy director for management and three members of the PMC will sit on the subcommittee. At least two career members of the SES will collaborate with the subcommittee and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.

Tuesday’s event comes nearly one year after the President spoke with a group of about 3,000 federal managers, when he introduced an initial series of reforms to the SES. A White House advisory group on the Service, a White House Leadership Development fellowship program and a new customer service award were among his proposals.

Now with one year left of the Obama administration, Dirks said he’s apprehensive that agencies will be able to make significant progress on major reforms.

“It’s really important for agencies to take the executive order seriously and to view it as part of an investment strategy in strengthening their senior executive program and to support the people in senior executive and senior professional positions, who are so critical to the accomplishment of their agencies’ missions,” he said. “If this document sits on the shelf and it’s not seriously implemented, the needle is not going to move very much, in terms of strengthening the SES.”

Many thanks, new awards

But Dirks said he was pleased to see minor changes to the draft executive order that circulated last month, particularly in language that describes the importance of recognizing SES achievements.

White House leaders echoed similar messages of gratitude.

“I want to start off on behalf of the President saying two simple words: thank you,” OMB Director Shaun Donovan said. “Thank you for your service, for working tirelessly on behalf of your country, for taking risks to innovate in many different ways, while at the same time enduring great challenges: pay freezes, budget cuts, sequestration. … But you do all of that with too little recognition or reward. And I want you to know that your exceptional work does not go unnoticed.”

McDonough voiced similar sentiments and thanked the 164 Presidential Rank Award winners of 2015 for their hard work.

“You keep America running,” he said.

Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert, along with OMB Associate Director for Performance and Personnel Management Lisa Danzig and Social Security Administration Chief of Staff Stacy Rodgers, also recognized the inaugural winners of the President’s Customer Service Awards Tuesday.

“You serve as role models to as all, and you do so at a particularly important time when, for any number of reasons, faith in our institutions is being battered,” McDonough said of the winners. “But as I said, the antidote to that, is each and every one of you.”

Two individuals and three program teams each picked up an award.

Shawn Lynch, Social Security Administration Alabama Field Office: Lynch was the driving force behind an effort to reduce the backlog of Supplemental Security Income overpayment files by 70 percent. Her work with the local community also led to an 488 percent increase in registrations.

Dr. Justin Springer, DeBakey Va Medical Center, Veterans Affairs Department: Since fiscal 2012, Springer implemented 19 different initiatives to improve customer satisfaction at the Mental Health Inpatient Unit at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.

Global Entry Program: This program helped CBP officers save more than 287,000 work hours by expediting pre-approved, low-risk travelers into the United States.

Consulate of Dhahran, Saudia Arabia Team, State Department: The Saudia Arabia team delivered off-site services to its American customers for the first time. Typically, Americans traveled on dangerous roads to reach the Consulate.

BusinessUSA Veteran Entrepreneur Initiative: Veterans now have easier access to the resources they need to start or grow their own businesses. The Business USA team overhauled multiple government websites and developed one. The site served more than 250,000 veterans since it launched in July 2014.