Obama announces series of SES reforms

During a meeting with thousands of federal managers today, President Barack Obama announced reforms to the Senior Executive Service. They include creating an SE...

By Shefali Kapadia
Federal News Radio

During a meeting with nearly 3,000 federal managers Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced a number of reforms to the Senior Executive Service.

The White House will create the Leadership Development Program aimed primarily at future SESers, at a time when the administration estimates about one-quarter of senior managers will be eligible to retire by 2017.

Through the program, potential managers will work in rotational assignments at different agencies and bring learned skills back to their home agencies.

“We want great ideas to spread. We want people to get new experiences that reenergize them, reinvigorate them,” Obama said at the meeting. “We want those ideas to cross-pollinate across the agencies.”

Watch the President’s full speech below. Please note: the actual address begins at 25:19 in the video.

Can’t see the video above? Listen to President Obama’s full speech.

Jitinder Kohli, director in the Public Sector Practice at Deloitte, said the cross-agency program will allow executives to work on the administration’s key priorities.

Patricia Niehaus, the president of the Federal Managers Association, said the rotational assignment initiative holds a lot of promise.

“The opportunities that would present to lower-level managers to grow into the SES would just be invaluable,” she said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “It’s a career path that sometimes tops out for managers because they don’t have that breadth of experience. To be able to give our managers that is just an invaluable tool. I think it will be great if they get it in place and get it working.”

The President also announced the creation of an advisory group, comprising both members of the SES and aspiring senior executives. The group will implement reforms to the SES in preparation for the upcoming retirement wave.

The advisory group will work to update how the government recruits, hires, develops and retains senior executives. It also will identify ways to improve accountability and management within the SES.

“One of the things that we know in the private sector about continuous improvement is you’ve got to have the folks right there on the front lines able to make suggestions and know that they’re heard, and to not simply be rewarded for doing an outstanding job, but to see their ideas implemented in ways that really make a difference,” Obama said. “Because most of the time, people get involved in government because they want to make a difference. And there’s no greater satisfaction than when you see something that you identified as a better way of doing things implemented.”

In a joint blog post, Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert said the group “will ensure the best practices across agencies are used to inform future reforms.”

Separate from reforms to the SES, the Obama administration plans to create a customer service awards program. The non-monetary incentives will reward excellence by individual federal employees.

“There are obviously places where the government comes into direct interaction either with businesses or with citizens,” Kohli said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “And it’s important for that experience to be one that’s positive and satisfactory on both sides.”

The awards program will include two levels — Secretary Custom Service Awards, which are given out by agencies, and Presidential Customer Service Awards.

Obama said he was surprised that an award for customer service hadn’t been created before.

The President’s meeting with SES members comes on the same day the Partnership for Public Service released its “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, which is based on results from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Obama said managers often don’t see the feedback provided in the survey. For that reason, he said the administration has collected feedback “in a way that’s clear and easy to read” on UnlockTalent.gov.

“You’ve got to have the folks right there on the front lines able to make suggestions and know that they’re heard,” Obama said.

In addition to announcing reforms, the President commended members of the SES for their service.

“My main message is thank you,” he said. “Our senior leaders, here and around the globe, are the best of the best.”

Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller discusses the reforms with event attendees.

The day also included a speech by Archuleta and a panel discussion on leadership featuring the secretaries of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, and Labor, Thomas Perez, and the NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Obama’s meeting follows the example set by the two most recent Republican administrations.

President George W. Bush met with SESers twice during his time in the White House. President George H.W. Bush met with the executives early in his term to remind these officials of their value to the nation.

The poll in this story is no longer available.

“The ability to bring them together … to talk about the importance of the Senior Executive Service and the role they play in delivering the priorities of the government, the role they play in leading federal workers, the role they play in providing customer service to the country, are all crucial topics,” Kohli said.

In many respects that thank you was a long time coming.

Carol Bonosaro, the president of the Senior Executives Association, said she’s pleased Obama finally spoke to the SESers, but she wasn’t sure why it took so long.

“Well it’s been a mystery to me. A friend of mine at Harvard, the Kennedy School, always calls it a strategic mission,” she said in an interview with Federal News Radio after the event. “I wish he’d had done it earlier. It certainly would’ve helped with the bumps we’ve been through over the past few years. But with the ones we expect ahead, better now than never.”

The reaction to the speech was mostly positive from the audience and other federal observers.

The one common refrain heard over and again was the emotion the President spoke with and the emotion in the room. The crowd interrupted Obama at least five times.

Bonosaro said she hopes these initiatives will inspire both the SES and non-SES managers.

Danny Werfel, a former SESer and political appointee at OMB where he was controller, as well as acting commissioner of the IRS, said even though there are only two years left in the administration, these initiatives are not short term projects.

“These things transcend administrations. That’s the whole purpose. This stuff is going to happen when he’s gone, and the types of stuff he’s putting in place whether it’s new opportunities for employees to rotate into new positions or new awards to recognize customer service, these things whether they are in the exact same incarnation in future administrations, these things set a foundation and I would expect things like that would be repeated and built upon in future administrations,” he said.

Werfel, who left government in March to join Boston Consulting Group as a director in the public sector practice, recently co-authored a report on the changes needed to reinvigorate the SES.

Werfel said the President’s thank you speech in many ways further validated the work the SES and other senior managers do every day. He said it’s an important message for those people beyond the federal government employees because they have to understand the role every employee plays.

Werfel said the White House’s support for the SES has mostly been behind the scenes, so this speech encapsulated a lot of what the administration has been talking about over the last few years, and it’s good to bring it all together in this event.

Federal News Radio’s executive editor Jason Miller contributed to this story.

Have a comment about the President’s speech? Leave a comment on this story, email jziegler@federalnewsradio.com, tweet us @FedNewsRadio using the hashtag #ObamaSES, or join the discussion on our Facebook page (see below).


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