The Senior Executive Service has a rollover problem. Sometimes executives make less than the employees they supervise, and that is keeping some people from entering the upper echelons of the federal workforce.
Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced legislation Wednesday designed to try to repair some of the problems with the SES by making it more enticing for General Schedule employees to take a promotion.
“The Senior Executive Service is made up of these highly educated professionals who often find themselves not only making less than those in the private sector, but also other federal workers,” Akaka said on the Senate floor.
Senior executives receive no locality or minimum salary adjustments, which means that some make less than the employees they supervise, especially if they work in more expensive areas, such as the District, which most senior executives do. The concept is known as pay compression and has been plaguing the SES for years.
Senior executives make $119,554 to $179,700 and GS-15 employees make $123,758 to $155,500, according to figures from the Office of Personnel Management. A higher workload and geographic relocation, often necessary for SES promotions, is not worth the promotion and diminished pay for many federal employees, said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.
Akaka’s bill would give executives a pay increase if GS employees get one, by averaging between GS base pay and locality increases, provided they meet performance-standards expectations. The provision should keep senior executive pay above the GS level across all steps.
If an executive gets a performance award bonus, it could be included in the retirement calculation, according to the bill.
The bill would also fix a perceived flaw in the senior executive performance evaluation system. “The current SES pay and performance management system is inconsistent, and many view pay adjustments as arbitrary or politicized and subject to de facto quotas,” the Senior Executives Association said in a statement.
Under the bill, executives would receive an explanation for why a rating was lowered from an initial recommendation from their supervisor to the agency’s performance review board. Performance quotas would also be prohibited. “Our view is that we have seen enough instances that essentially a quota has been operating,” Bonosaro said.
There are 7,000 career senior executives, and half of them will be eligible to retire over the next two years. “We ought to be very worried about that. There is a very high rate of retirement eligibly in the SES right now, and we’re very worried about the next generation,” Bonosaro said.
The bill would cap the number of politically appointed senior executives at 15 percent per agency based on the number of positions filled, not authorized. Currently, political appointees can fill 25 percent of allocated positions per agency, and 10 percent government-wide. “Right now it’s based on allocation. If you have 100 positions that are allocated but you only have 75 percent of them filled, you could have a third of those be noncareer. But it’s meeting the statute because it’s only 25 percent of the 100,” Bonosaro said.
David E. Lewis, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University who has studied career government executives and political appointees, said programs managed by career executives tend to receive higher ratings in the government’s Program Assessment Rating Tool. Employees also tend to rate the management of career supervisors higher than political appointees in annual assessments, Lewis said.
Lewis said political appointees are necessary for the function of government. “The question is where the sweet spot is,” Lewis said. “I think the concern is in the United States we’ve gone way past the sweet spot in the mix between careerists and political appointees.”
The bill also would require the assistant secretaries for administration and management in each agency to be filled by career executives, which Lewis called a reasonable suggestion. A further provision would make it easier for executives to rotate from one agency to another in an effort to free the flow of talent across the bureaucracyr.
A study released last year by the Partnership for Public Service showed senior executives were more dissatisfied with the government’s payment structure than the rest of the federal workforce.
Government employee satisfaction with pay dropped 6.1 percent last year, according to the study. For senior executives, satisfaction dropped 7.8 percent.
“Senator Akaka deserves incredible kudos for taking this issue on,” said Max Stier, president of the partnership. “The career leadership of our government is a critical component of our government’s ability to do what we want it to do.”
“No doubt there are things they could build better,” Stier continued. “Our expectation is that by beginning the conversation, Senator Akaka will welcome input on how to make this better.”
An earlier version of this story cited the wrong pay scale from the Office of Management and Budget. It has been corrected.