Rotational assignments an early success story from SES executive order

Nearly one year after agencies got new requirements to recruit, retain and develop senior executives, some are beginning to see some early signs of success.

Specifically, a few agencies are starting to embrace the concept of rotational assignments as a valuable tool to give their Senior Executive Service members more training and development opportunities, which is one of the four main priorities in the executive order President Barack Obama signed last December.

The Office of Personnel Management gave agencies until May 31 to develop plans to rotate more SES members to other agencies, subcomponents and functional areas. It specifically applies to agencies who have 20 or more SES positions.

“We have to stop thinking of rotations and mobility as this mean thing that we’re doing to people,” Angela Bailey, chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department, said Oct. 5 during a Government Executive panel discussion in Washington. “Instead, it’s actually all part of our growing and learning and developing and creating something, where today, I can still reach back to folks that I worked with at DoD … and get an Army regulation that I needed on something because I’d really like to see if it would apply at DHS.”

Steve Shih, deputy associate director for senior executive services and performance management, said OPM is telling agencies to start small with their rotational assignments.

Critics of the executive order were initially concerned that senior executives would be forced to move positions or locations.

“One of the challenges often times in actually getting agencies to support mobility is this perception or concern that if I give away one of my resources, particularly an SES asset that’s extremely important, I’m going to be down a person,” Shih said. “It’s going to impact my operations and ultimately it hurts me. It hurts my ability to deliver results.”

But as a start, Shih is encouraging organizations to begin rotating senior executives within their own departments.

“There’s more of a line of sight value in seeing an asset going to another part within the department, where you can easily see the value coming back and you can see the value with coordination there,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to do is start small to get agencies to embrace the idea of finding rotations that immediately [have a] return on investment.”

OPM is also matching agencies to others who have similar missions or technical skills, Shih added.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, has moved around all its 82 senior executives to different positions both in and outside the agency, said Bridget Bean, deputy chief human capital officer for FEMA.

“It took away the stigma of a detail, an assignment — that mobility,” she said. “It no longer became a negative, punitive, embarrassing kind of situation, but rather, you are picked to do this by the administrator. Because he applied it equally across the board, the agency easily overcame the stigma.”

Some FEMA executives are doing details at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the U.S. Northern Command. Others have moved to a different office within FEMA itself. These opportunities are giving FEMA SES the chance to become more well-rounded leaders, which can only improve their ability to respond to natural disasters, Bean said.

The assignments are also improving employee morale, she added.

“[It’s] not because they didn’t like the previous manager or supervisor or leader, but because it’s an opportunity to shine again,” Bean said. “It’s an opportunity for the employees and the SES to put their best foot forward. That kind of synergy and excitement is really having very positive impacts at FEMA.”

Employees on short-term assignments within the Housing and Urban Development Department helped its chief human capital officer, Towanda Brooks, finish 10 projects that wouldn’t have gotten done otherwise.

The Homeland Security Department is taking a similar approach. The department is moving toward joint-duty assignments, similar to the way members of the military or employees in the intelligence community change assignments, Bailey said.

But agencies should only deploy rotations in areas where they make sense, she added.

“In some cases, you have to recognize the culture of a particular agency and the components within an agency to try to figure out what’s the right blend,” Bailey said. “I don’t think one size fits all. In an agency like OPM, for example, institutional knowledge is incredibly important.”

But Bailey urged agencies to remember the initial purpose of the Senior Executive Service.

“This whole idea of mobility is really about if you go back to the original intent of the SES,” she said.
“We are a corps. It is the SES corps. We really need to start seeing ourselves as that within our respective areas.”

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