Federal Eye: New Report Calls for Improvements to Senior Executive Service

The Senior Executive Service is broken, mired in tired bureaucratic traditions and failing to attract top talent from outside government, according to a lengthy review of the ranks of the government’s elite managers by two outside organizations.

The report, from the good-government group Partnership for Public Service and the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, will be released Thursday. It comes amid new plans to reshape how the Office of Personnel Management oversees the roughly 7,000 career federal executives in the SES.

The service was established in the late 1970s during the Carter administration’s civil service reform efforts, and its advocates hoped it would lead to a promotion system much like the military’s, in which officers are promoted to generals only after serving in various capacities and different locations.

Instead, the study reports, civilian senior executives have mostly opted to stay put within one agency, ascending its chain of command. Senior managers “have been viewed primarily as agency-specific assets, not federal or national assets,” according to the report.

The study’s authors spent more than a year analyzing available OPM and agency data, and conducting interviews and focus groups with current and former SES members, academics, lawmakers and human resources experts.

The SES “receives way too little attention and needs to be overhauled in a very consequential way,” said Max Stier, president of the partnership.

The report includes several recommendations, including one that would shorten the application process. The current setup relies too much on jargon-laced job descriptions and written essays that deter qualified private-sector candidates, some of whom hire writers to complete the application, according to the report.

The study’s authors also suggest that OPM establish an “elite corps” of managers that could regularly move across agencies, as originally intended. But such a move could be impractical, according to former senior executives.

“Part of the reason that people don’t move is they get comfortable in a particular agency, they learn the policy issues and the policy challenges in a particular area, and they feel like that’s their comfort zone,” said Joseph A. Ferrara, a former Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget official who is now associate dean of Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute.

“I got promoted because I become an expert in the policies in that area, not because I’m such a great executive who can go anywhere and do anything,” Ferrara said.

Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said she has seen more senior executives move around in recent years than in the past. Still, “mobility can be overrated, because you really can’t discount the importance of knowing the agency’s business. How many executives should be playing musical chairs?” she asked.

Part of the challenge is that OPM has failed to offer senior executives more mobility, Bonosaro said. “If an executive was applying to another agency, very often the reaction was, ‘There must be something wrong with this applicant.’ ”

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