Presidential Rank Awards will return this year, OPM says

This story was updated on Wednesday, March 3 at 3:30 p.m. with additional comments from the Senior Executives Association. 

After last year’s cancellation, the Office of Personnel Management will bring back the Presidential Rank Awards in 2021, the prestigious honor program for members of the Senior Executive Service and senior career employees.

“I am pleased to announce the call for nominations for the fiscal 2021 Presidential Rank Awards (PRA) program and we are thrilled that the Presidential Rank Awards are making their return,” Kathleen McGettigan, OPM’s acting director, said Wednesday morning. “After a hiatus in 2020, we’re proud to be bringing back this annual recognition of a select group of career members of the Senior Executive Service and senior career employees for exceptional performance.”

Agencies have until April 9 to submit their nominations for the Presidential Rank Awards to OPM.

The Presidential Rank Awards are considered the highest honor for career civil servants. Just 1%  of  Senior Executive Service members earn a Distinguished Rank Award in any given year, while 5% of executives are eligible for a Meritorious Rank Award. The awards typically come with a cash bonus worth 20-to-35% of executives’ salaries.

OPM oversees the rank award program by developing criteria for agencies to guide their selections, determining candidate eligibility and convening a PRA board to review the nominees.

The OPM director then submits a list of recommended finalists to the president, who chooses the rank award recipients.

“The Presidential Rank Awards have a rich history of awarding well-deserved individuals in federal career service,” Ron Klain, White House chief of staff, said in a statement. “We are pleased that OPM has made it a priority to bring back these distinguished awards to honor our dedicated civil servants in the federal workforce. The president looks forward to being part of the selection process and lifting up individuals that consistently demonstrate strength, integrity, industry and a relentless commitment to public service.”

OPM provided more details to agencies about the PRA nomination process in a new memo, which it issued Wednesday morning.

Agencies should carefully review the backgrounds of their nominees and check for any issues with their past conduct, disciplinary actions, inspector general findings, proceedings before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, among other considerations, OPM said.

“We are looking for extraordinary leaders who have made significant contributions in delivering mission-critical solutions, providing excellent customer service and being good stewards of taxpayers’ dollars,” McGettigan said in the memo.

She said the PRA program allowed government to celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of federal employees “through good times and challenging ones.”

The Senior Executives Association on Wednesday praise the decision to revive the Presidential Rank Awards.

“Last year’s cancellation of the Presidential Rank Awards was a devastating blow to the morale of federal leaders who have sacrificed their health and safety throughout the pandemic,” Bob Corsi, SEA’s interim president, said. “We appreciate the Biden – Harris administration for bringing back this celebration of federal leaders and look forward to working together to recognize their excellence.”

The Trump administration cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty as reasons for canceling last year’s rank awards. And while the decision was met with criticism, it wasn’t without precedent.

The Obama administration also canceled the awards in 2013. Bonuses were suspended due to budget constraints, though OPM continued to accept nominations. The awards returned in 2015, along with the bonuses, after a year’s hiatus.

In 2019, OPM and the White House recognized more than 100 senior executives with top honors. Several executives earned awards for managing through the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, while others overhauled the veterans disability process, led groundbreaking scientific research and discovered thousands of new planets.

The Biden administration teased the resumption of the Presidential Rank Awards program earlier this week.

In brief remarks Monday, Pam Coleman, associate director for performance management at the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration would use traditional methods such as the rank awards and Public Service Recognition Week to call attention to federal employees and their accomplishments. But she also said the Biden administration sought other ways to more regularly recognize the workforce.

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