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Jeff Neal Urges Organizations to Update Their Outlook on Senior Executive Service

‘You can’t step into the same river twice.’

Unfortunately, the federal government likes to step in the same river as many times as it can. But some industry leaders are demanding a federal reform in order to keep pace with the changing demographics of government.

Jeff Neal, Senior Vice President at ICF International, spoke with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program about reforms to the Senior Executive Service.

Neal studied the Senior Executive Service Accountability Act looking for material between policy and politics. He didn’t like what he found.

“There were seven major items and four of them, just over half, were about accountability, and three of them were pure politics,” said Neal. “That’s something that we should be worried about: when we start seeing politics coming into the Senior Executive Service.”

While Neal says the bill is satisfactory there is no uniformity in how organizations select their Senior Executive Service.

“Some agencies are very particular. Some treat senior executives like GS16, like they’re just one more level in the GS scale,” said Neal.

While standardization may not be the answer, an updated outlook could significantly improve the hiring process. One of Neal’s biggest concerns is the SES’s aging population.

“We have more people staying around and not retiring,” said Neal. “We have fewer younger people being hired. When we have a large population that becomes eligible to retire that’s not a huge problem…if you know when they’re going to go away and you can plan for it. But when you have a very large number of people eligible you become very susceptible to problems that arise.”

When the government neglects to incentivize SES positions, as they VA recently banned bonuses entirely, more workers will choose to leave the position early.

“If you look at the separation numbers for SES personnel leaving the federal service, it went up quite a bit from 2011-2013. Five years ago, less than 500 SES’s left the government. Over 700 left in 2012 and 2013. So a lot of the SES labor force has turned over in the last few years including half of the SES personnel in the last five years.” said Neal.

There will be significant turnover with almost all federal employees as the workforce continues to rapidly age but fails to recruit young talent. However, the employee’s retirement isn’t Neal’s main concern.

“What really concerns me is wondering if the agency has an adequate workforce planning capacity, does it know what kind of turnover it should expect, where it should expect, does it have plans in place to be able to replace those people, and even to decide if those folks need to be replaced, or if they need to apply their resources elsewhere,” said Neal.

But agencies can improve their process. All it takes is more planning and preparation.

“Agencies need to have good planning processes in place and they need to understand what their data is telling them,” said Neal. “Employees in federal government should view the next few years as a time when there may be a lot of challenges, but there are also going to be a lot of opportunities for people who are upwardly mobile and looking to find new and different and better things to do in government.”

Neal stresses the need for HR to create more-hands on recruiting starting at the foundation level.

“I think what’s really important is to look at how long it takes to fill a particular type of job and then once you’ve got it filled, how long it takes that person to come up to speed,” said Neal.

The SES workforce is among the many positions federal government must reform if it hopes to attain a savvy workforce. But the SES force should sit atop the agenda because if government wants to recruit the best talent they should already have it at the top.

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