Fixing the SES: The truth about accountability

Does the federal government hold members of the Senior Executive Service accountable for their actions? In part three of Federal News Radio's special report, Fi...

For nearly as long as there’s been a Senior Executive Service, politicians, think tanks and consultants have been trying to make it better. The underlying implication is that the SES is not doing its job, at least not well enough. It is not the top-performing cadre of career leaders that Congress envisioned in 1978 when it passed the law creating the service.

Judging by recent reports, proposals and legislation, it appears the SES lacks many things it should have in droves, such as accountability, nimbleness and even guts. But the problems look different from the inside.

“We’re not sick. We don’t have the flu or anything,” said Eddie Ribas, chief human capital officer of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and an SES member. “I do believe we need a checkup. There’s tinkering that has to be done to meet the demands of the future.”

In part three of Federal News Radio’s special report, Fixing the SES, current and former senior executives candidly respond to the criticism. Their answers are far more nuanced and complex than the rhetoric that surrounds the service. Yet inside or outside the SES, there is one thing most seem to agree on — the government needs a corps of leaders who are in it for the long haul. Doing away with the Senior Executive Service, as a whole, is not an option.

“Senior executives, at some level, are needed without a doubt,” because presidential administrations come and go, said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, in an interview on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Yet, he said, he sees “inconsistencies,” if not full-fledged problems, that must be addressed to restore the public’s confidence in the federal workforce.

The laws exist. People don’t use them.

When asked about the SES, leaders of the congressional committees that oversee the federal workforce tend to talk about senior executives behaving badly with seemingly light repercussions. They mention now-familiar names like Jeff Nealy and Lois Lerner, implicated in scandals at the General Services Administration and the IRS, respectively.

“When you have somebody within your organization who isn’t playing by the rules, who may be breaking policy, breaking the law or isn’t playing by policy or playing by the law, you can’t put him on paid administrative leave for the next year and not have a consequence. You can’t retire and think that’s behind you,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, recently told members of the National Treasury Employees Union.

A new law that shortens the steps needed to fire senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department has spawned a bevy of similar ideas to give agencies more tools with which to penalize SES members. But senior executives question whether Congress really needs to get involved.

“I think we have all the tools necessary today to appropriately handle those kinds of situations. If someone is doing something inappropriate, we have steps we can take — disciplinary action — from counseling to removal,” said Ribas.

Eddie Ribas discusses four challenges facing the SES.

When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began having doubts about Bill Proenza, the head of the National Hurricane Center in 2007, it fell to Ribas, then the agency’s director for workforce management, to investigate. Proenza eventually was fired.

Yet that’s a rare occurrence. The numbers seem to lend weight to the claim that agencies do not hold senior executives accountable for their actions. Of the 890 SES members who left the government in fiscal 2014, just two were terminated or removed for discipline or performance, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

“It’s less of an issue of having the ability than utilizing the rules and regulations. It’s a hesitancy to take the action, not a lack of authority to take the action,” Ribas said.

The reasons for that hesitancy are complex, SES members said. Ribas and others who have used those tools admit it is not easy to discipline someone under the merit principles that guide federal personnel policies. But it can be done.

“You have to work hard if someone is not performing. There is a way to document that, but a lot of people don’t use it or take the time,” said Barbara Sisson, the assistant chief of the Army Reserve.

Over her long career in government, she has fired two people, one for stealing and the other for threatening his colleagues. Nonetheless, when she tells people about it, they usually seem surprised.

“They say, ‘Wow.’ In government, it’s difficult to do,” she said.

The statistics, Sisson said, can be misleading. Agencies tend to resolve personnel issues in easier ways, such as letting senior executives retire rather than be fired. Agencies may also require them to move. That’s one reason why SES members get touchy when the subject of mobility arises.

Sisson recalled a colleague who was told to pack up and move from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta.

“He said, ‘I know what they’re trying to do.’ He went to Atlanta and eventually retired on his own terms,” she recalled.

That reality conflicts with an ideal many outsiders still hold dear. The 1978 law envisioned a mobile group of federal leaders that could deploy to whichever part of government needed their executive skills. The Partnership for Public Service, among others, has advocated for a return to that model. They say nimble leaders, versed in the ways of multiple agencies, can help break the silos that have stifled progress in critical areas, from disaster relief to national security.

But Jeri Buchholz, for one, is tired of the talk about how the SES has failed to achieve that original vision.

“My initial gut reaction is: my opinions have changed since 1979. We shouldn’t go back and implement a 30-year-old concept because we didn’t get there in 30 years,” said Buchholz, the chief human capital officer of NASA and an SES member.

Teaching all leaders to lead people

With regards to accountability, Buchholz sees a simple solution — better communication. Leaders should be communicating their expectations clearly to employees and checking in with those employees frequently, she said.

Jeri Buchholz discusses the good and bad about the SES today.

“At NASA, we take performance management very, very, very seriously. People get really meaningful feedback because we need all of our executives to be the type of executives that we aspire to have our workforce work for,” she said. “Those fundamental things are true regardless of what your procedures look like.”

But if poor performance management is the problem, then the factors are complicated. For one thing, Buchholz and others said, agencies tend to promote subject-matter experts into the SES, even if they lack leadership skills and abilities.

“If you’re in IT, you’re rated on IT and not on whether you’re a good leader, managing people well, getting good results or managing your fiduciary responsibilities well,” said one SES member in the technology field, who wished to remain anonymous. “There are great SES members out there and there are horrible ones as well. I always wonder why [their agency is] letting them manage the most prized commodity, which are humans.”

Yet for all the SES’ weaknesses, the career executives answer to political leaders. Bill Valdez, who retired from the SES last year, said political appointees would rather focus on the administration’s agenda than delve into the messy business of managing people.

“SES operate under the supervision and direction of politicals. Politicals run the federal government. That’s by statute. That’s by law. A career employee cannot oversee a political,” he said.

Lois Lerner, the senior executive who ran the IRS’ tax-exempt group when it was accused of mishandling applications from conservative groups, was scapegoated, Valdez said. And that leads to another problem troubling SES members — they feel singled out and picked upon. If there is a lack of accountability among the SES, it is far worse elsewhere in government, they said.

In the Defense Department, SES members face tougher evaluations than military leaders, said Sisson. SES performance plans typically emphasize accountability, a demonstration of leadership skills, financial responsibility and change management, she said.

“I think the SES in the Army holds itself to account by performance plans way beyond general officers,” she said. “They don’t have the same kind of rigorous accounting for their performance like we do.”

Like other SES members, Sisson said she sees no reason for a new law making it easier to fire people. But, it wouldn’t bother her if Congress passed the law, she said.

“If they make it easier to fire SES, then they should do the same for [General Schedule] employees too,” she said. “If you’re doing a good job, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. It should be done fairly.”

Should the government run like a corporation?

Most of the SES-related proposals in Congress seek to increase accountability by threatening to strip members of some job protections or benefits, already seen as less certain than those of employees in the GS ranks. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to force VA senior executives to return their bonuses if Secretary Bob McDonald demands it, for example. This follows last year’s law that lets McDonald fire senior executives more quickly.

The Senior Executives Association polled its members on at-will employment. Specifically, said study author Steve Lenkart, it asked about the “walk-in-be-fired-pack-up-your-box-and-off- you- go” variety of termination that is a horror story at any company and unheard of in the career federal workforce. Nearly all SEA members polled said a move in that direction would be bad for the government. Their biggest concern, said Lenkart, is that any moves toward at-will employment would politicize the SES. Career executives would be more hesitant to challenge their political leaders for fear of losing their jobs. Already, a perception exists that SES members are more reluctant to take risks because of increased political pressure.

“In the era of 24/7 news and the Internet, it’s difficult to take on risky efforts that don’t succeed and have them not work out,” said David Bray, chief information officer at the Federal Communications Commission. “We allow Silicon Valley to do that, but it’s venture capitalist dollars, not taxpayer dollars, and you don’t want DoD to go bankrupt.”

For that reason, the federal government cannot treat its executives like the private sector does, said Steve Shih at the Office of Personnel Management.

“We can’t afford to have agencies go out of business,” he said. “This is a key principle for career service. It’s based upon merit, free of prohibited personnel practices and political interference.”

Next week, in part four of Federal News Radio’s special report, Fixing the SES, if accountability measures are the sticks used to discipline SES members who act badly, what are the carrots to reward those who go above and beyond, and to attract the next generation of leaders?


Part 1: SES ‘used to be an honor. Now it’s a joke.’

Part 2: Why we stay: SES in their own words

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