After year-long hiatus, Biden names 230 winners for Presidential Rank Awards

This story was updated on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021 at 9:50 a.m. with an additional comment from the Senior Executives Association. 

More than 200 members of the Senior Executive Service will receive Presidential Rank Awards from the Biden administration, the highest honor for career civil servants.

The Office of Personnel Management on Tuesday announced 230 winners from 37 different agencies as recipients of the prestigious awards. Because the Presidential Rank Awards were canceled last year, this year’s honors recognize the work of senior executives over “an extended period of time,” OPM said.

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.

“The resumption of the Presidential Rank Awards reflects the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to support the federal workforce and recognize federal employees who serve with distinction,” OPM Director Kiran Ahuja said Tuesday in a statement. “The federal workforce is in the business of achieving the unachievable — from curing disease, to combatting climate change, to landing rovers on the surface of Mars. I am pleased to be lifting up hard-working individuals who consistently demonstrate strength, integrity, industry and a relentless commitment to public service.”

Like previous years, the winners hail from a wide variety of agencies and mission areas. They include a Department of Homeland Security official who created TSA PreCheck, as well as an executive from the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, who developed a new way of detecting waste, fraud and abuse and uncovered $19 billion in fines and penalties over five years.

In a blog post, Ahuja recognized Dianna Saxman, the deputy associate director of OPM’s federal staffing center, as a Meritorious Rank Award winner. Saxman rebuilt the federal talent acquisition system known as USA Staffing.

That system used to produce 50,000 hiring selections annually for a few small agencies, OPM said. Today, USA Staffing facilitates almost 85% of the federal government’s hiring activities, and it made 355,000 hiring selections for 105 agencies in fiscal 2020, Ahuja said.

Saxman’s team is adapting USA Staffing, USAJobs.gov and other OPM services to help agencies surge hiring for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Find the full list of 2021 Presidential Rank Award winners here.

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 review board usually consists of individuals who live inside the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. But because the process was entirely virtual this year, the review board included more than 100 participants from across the world, OPM said.

After the board reviews the PRA nominees, OPM recommends finalists to the president, who then makes the final selections.

The Trump administration canceled last year’s Presidential Rank Awards, citing the ongoing pandemic and economic uncertainty as the reasons for its decision. It was met with criticism, but it wasn’t without precedent.

The Obama administration canceled the awards back 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.

OPM earlier this year said it would revive the Presidential Rank Awards this year as a way to recognize career executives for their work during the pandemic.

The Senior Executives Association applauded the return of the rank awards. SEA President Bob Corsi said he hoped Biden would find a way to personally meet with and recognize this year’s winners.

“Recognizing such a significant class of senior executives for their sustained excellence and demonstrated outcomes sends a powerful, encouraging signal to career leaders across government. Shining the spotlight of the presidency on the most accomplished and impactful Senior Executives and senior professionals is one of the best ways the government has to convey the impact of federal agencies and programs every day.”

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