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Want to join the SES? Keep reading.

In a report published this morning, the non-profit, non-partisan Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Co. call out major obstacles and key recommendations about how “executive mobility increases the government’s ability to fulfill cross-agency missions.” In other words, the cross-fertilization of top talent from office to office, agency to agency, or even sector to sector is critical to delivering on our government’s promise to its citizens.

Contrary to popular belief and current use, the SES was actually designed to facilitate the fluid movement of human capital, allowing employees to gain an “enterprise-wide perspective” that would inform their thinking about big-picture issues and hone their leadership skills in a way that allows them to parachute in, get results, and then move on to their next post — kind of like the State Department’s Foreign Service. Yet only 8% of federal employees in the Senior Executive Service (SES) have worked at more than one agency during their time in the SES.

So, what happened? In short, a number of government-wide, agency-level, and individual barriers over the last 30+ years have taken the teeth out of what could have been an elite cadre of high performers at the highest levels of government (in the same way that the PMF program has not lived up to its full potential, either).

On page 11, the authors point out a fundamental shift that must take place to overcome these long-standing institutional barriers: “viewing executives not as agency-specific resources but as national assets.” There also hasn’t been a purposeful effort to centrally coordinate executive mobility across the U.S. government, allowing inter-governmental rotations or cross-agency placements to happen in ways other than chance or word-of-mouth.

The report proposes five solutions for reversing the trend of executive stagnation, ranging from building mobility into SES selection criteria to investing in early-tenure mobility programs (like Candidate Development Programs). Creating incentives and removing disincentives will take creativity and commitment from several groups, including the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council.

What do you think? Will a more agile Senior Executive Service help achieve agencies to achieve their missions?

For the full report, click here: http://bit.ly/yIGSar

Andy Lowenthal is a public sector strategy consultant. Follow him on Twitter.

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What’s interesting is that last year I was traveling (I forget if was Canada or UK) and they had the reverse problem – all SES basically moved every 2 years to other agencies so a lot of the institutional knowledge was always leaving and there was also a push to just wait people out as knew they’d rotate

So I think the truth is somewhere in the middle – encourage mobility especially within agency and departments while encouraging details, short-term opportunities

Andy Lowenthal

Great insight, Steve. The report cites a vibrant, mobile leadership cadre in the UK (not sure about our neighbors to the North), and those drawbacks make sense.

In the spirit of rapid results, I think an infusion of new talent has the potential to shake things up, particularly in the case of programs or divisions that are plagued by chronic underperformance or even calamity.


There are plenty of eager and able people wanting to fill that void. Perhaps if there were procedures and paths in place and it wasn’t such a long drawn out process, then more could be involved and all sides would improve.

Gregg Porter

While I believe there are some benefits to “mobility” there are also many drawbacks. Mobility can create an environment of, “I don’t like the new director’s policies and vision, but I know that if I can drag my feet and wait three years, he/she will be gone and someone new, with new ideas and new policies, will rotate in.”

There can also be a tendency of “mobile” leaders who come in, shake things up and then depart without having to live with the results of their decisions. Often they’ll focus on one or two strategies which have fairly high impact (though not often in the best interests for the organization long term), can be implemented within their short tenure, and will provide positive bullet points on their appraisal. The more time a leader invests in an organization, the more informed and solid their decisions will be. I am certainly not advocating leaders spend their entire careers in one location. However, executives need to be in place long enough to understand the implications of their vision and be able to implement smart, long-term changes which often require changes to an organization’s culture. And changes in culture require a long-term commitment by leaders at all levels.

Shelly Nuessle

As someone trying to move into the ranks of the SES, i find it harder to get in the door, since I am not a career Fed. But being looked at as a mobile, national resource, especially in the area I am in (Security & Privacy) is exactly how I look at this career choice. Going in and getting a program in place and executing well, and then moving to where I am next needed.

That is what I am hoping for.

Terrie Craven

I like this idea of mobility and looking at human resources as assets to be shared where they are most needed. Does anyone know if there is something similar in state government?