White House makes 11th hour effort to improve SES

A draft executive order, obtained by Federal News Radio, details short and long term initiatives to improve how members of the Senior Executive Service are recr...

A year after President Barack Obama first spoke to members of the Senior Executive Service, a draft executive order is trying to put many of his ideas into practice.

The draft EO, which Federal News Radio obtained, is five pages and focuses on four immediate and longer-term actions to improve the government’s ability to recruit, retain and train members of the Senior Executive Service.

Sources said  the White House wants the executive order finalized by December and recently shared it among key stakeholders and good government groups.

“These are good management practices,” said Tim Dirks, the acting president of the Senior Executives Association. “It’s giving people the proper training. It’s planning for succession when people retire and it’s sending people out on assignments so they can build their skills and give them more background on mission. We support those efforts.”

But Dirks and other experts question why Obama is coming out now with an executive order with 13 months left in his administration, and whether the provisions really address the biggest challenges facing the SES.

“Why the push on the SES in the 11th hour of the administration?” asked one industry expert, who was briefed by the White House on the EO and requested anonymity to talk about the briefing. “It’s really going to be for the next administration to implement. I’m glad to see the activity, but I have to question why now? A lot of credit goes to [acting Office of Personnel Management Director] Beth Cobert for taking this on, but this focus should have been on [former OPM Director] John Berry’s slate.”

President Obama spoke to SESers in December 2014, highlighting ideas to improve the leadership and management program.

The Office of Management and Budget, OPM and the White House’s Office of Presidential Personnel are leading the drafting of the EO. The industry expert questioned why the Presidential Personnel Office was part of the order’s development because it could be seen as politicizing the SES cadre in some ways.

In the short term, the draft executive order focuses on key areas such as pay, rotational assignments and hiring.

The draft document calls for agencies to “gradually increase the rate of basic pay of SES employees as needed to ensure they are not paid less than their subordinate employees covered by the General Schedule (GS) (based on the GS locality rates of pay that apply in each executive’s official duty station), as much as is practicable, and as permitted by law.”

The White House also would want OPM within 90 days to “review the Qualifications Review Board (QRB) process and issue guidance to agencies about materials that would be acceptable for QRB consideration that will serve as an alternative or replacement to the current lengthy essay requirement for QRB submission, which may deter qualified applicants for SES positions or put additional burden on human resources staff.”

OPM also will issue guidance to streamline initial application requirements for SES positions, such as letting applicants submit a resume or other documents to prove they are qualified.

Additionally, the draft EO calls for agencies with 20 or more SES positions to submit a plan to OPM by May 31 to increase the number of senior executives taking advantage of rotational assignments starting on Oct. 1.

“This order establishes a governmentwide goal of 15 percent of SES rotating for a minimum of 120 days (including to different agencies, subcomponents, functional areas, sectors, and non-federal partners) by the end of the 2017 fiscal year, and thereafter, in order to ensure the mobility of the corps while also maintaining stability of operations,” the draft document stated. “OPM shall evaluate these percentages on an ongoing basis and make adjustments as necessary and appropriate. These plans shall take into consideration the policy priorities of the agency, needs identified in existing agency hiring plans, the development opportunities listed in individuals’ executive development plans, and the federal government’s interest in cultivating generalist executives with broad and diverse experiences who can lead a variety of organizations.”

While the idea for rotational assignments is generally supported, some experts say the administration’s ideas raise concerns.

The industry expert questioned whether agencies will just rotate people who they don’t want in their department anymore.

“A lot of political appointees may not want to rotate their best people out because you need them here,” the expert said. “I think that’s a fair consideration, so I’m glad to see there is flexibility to rotate in the department.”

SEA said in comments to OMB and OPM about the draft EO that the organization is concerned about having a governmentwide goal. SEA said agencies should decide on rotational assignments based on what’s best for them.

“The President is committed to attracting and retaining the best talent to the federal workforce and fostering a culture of excellence,” said an OMB spokesman in a statement to Federal News Radio. “As part of the President’s Management Agenda, the administration has been working on a series of initiatives to provide new opportunities for aspiring senior federal leaders to develop the skills needed to better serve the American public.”

Dirks said the draft EO does a lot of good things, but fails to address the underlying problems with the SES.

“There is nothing in there to address the attractiveness of the SES,” he said. “We are hearing from GS-15s that they don’t want the jobs. There is a lot of risk, a lot of accountability and not enough rewards. What we are seeking is a balance. If you don’t address underlying attractiveness of SES, you will not be able to recruit or retain new members, and you will not have a strong SES. It’s either a blind spot or a reluctance to step to the plate and give SESers the real opportunity for meaningful pay.”

Dirks said it’s not just about pay, but about recognizing the importance of the position.

He said there are other ways to recognize high quality performance beyond basic pay.

“One of the main differentiators between the SES and systems below it is the SES was based on carefully balanced risk versus reward, and pay for performance is the tiebreaker. If an SES member is not performing in their job, they can more easily be removed than a member of the GS. But if you are doing a great job, there’s supposed to be some meaningful rewards for SESers. What’s happened in recent years is the administration has put a cap on amount of money for those bonuses so they have been diminished.”

Over the long term, the draft EO calls for agencies to:

  • Establish an annual talent management and succession planning process to assess the development needs of all SES employees to inform readiness decisions about hiring, career development and executive reassignments and rotations.
  • Proactively recruit individuals for SES positions authorized by OPM and regularly review such recruitment efforts at the deputy secretary level (or direct designee) on at least a quarterly basis, based on regular review of SES vacancies and anticipated vacancies, and consistent with existing rules and regulations. Agencies also must establish a mechanism to track, and raise for appropriate senior-level attention, information about each position agencies are seeking to fill, including at a minimum, recruitment pools targeted, number and quality of applicants, source of applicants (subcomponent, agency or non-government) and timeliness of the hiring process.
  • Establish a formal Executive Onboarding Program informed by OPM’s Enhanced Executive Onboarding Model and Governmentwide Executive Onboarding Framework, which provides critical support and guidance to executives through their first year of service in new positions, subject to guidance to be issued by OPM no later than 60 days after the date of this order.

The industry expert said the EO is a good start, but could be improved.

“I think the administration is banking on this being a legacy issue,” the source said. “At the end of the day, they are looking back at eight years and asking what do they have to show for it? Maybe one of the things is they can say they enhanced the SES in the final year of their administration. I think it would have been nice if happened four years ago.”

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