Federal workforce’s top leadership face tough challenges

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 29, 2011

During a period when all federal employees have been asked to do more with less, including less pay than they expected, the government’s elite leadership corps is facing additional problems that could diminish its quality, number and effectiveness.

That’s the upshot of testimony Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the Senior Executive Service.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

“At a time when we truly need the best and the brightest in our executive corps — and when senior managers are expected to achieve even greater results with limited resources — the funds available for executive pay, awards, training and professional development are severely limited,” Nancy Kichak, the chief human capital officer and an associate director of the Office of Personnel Management, told the Senate federal workforce subcommittee.

“At the same time, career SES members are being asked to lead and motivate a workforce whose own compensation and career opportunities are under attack,” she said.

Senior executives can earn more than $170,000, big money for government work. When fed bashers hit federal pay, executive compensation can be an easy target. Yet some executives oversee billion-dollar programs. Similar positions in the private sector pay many times more.

That was never more true than now, when their pay, like others’ in the government, is frozen for two years. Because of the freeze, the Obama administration will take no action to fix a long-standing quirk in the system that allows some executives to be paid less than subordinates they supervise.

Kichak acknowledged that “senior executives’ pay has not kept pace with that of the workforce they manage.” Then she added: “Nevertheless, since most federal employees’ pay is frozen at this time, we did not believe it was appropriate to exclude the workforce’s senior leaders from the freeze applied to the employees they manage.”

Although their pay is frozen, federal employees may continue to get bonuses based on performance. And SES members as a group are almost unbelievably good workers, according to their performance ratings.

For fiscal 2009, the percentage of executives rated as “exceeds expectations” or “outstanding” was 90.1 percent. And 9.6 percent were rated as “fully successful.” This covers those rated on a five-level scale, which is the vast majority of executives. Just 0.2 percent were considered “minimally successful,” and only one person was rated “unacceptable,” with a score rounded to zero percent. No one in the last two categories received a performance award. Almost 80 percent of senior executives government-wide received bonuses.

Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said more than 99 percent are considered at least fully successful because some of those who aren’t good get dumped. “People are encouraged to retire or are reassigned to Detroit,” she said during an interview, apparently unaware that she was speaking to a proud Detroit native. “There are lots of ways to push people out the door.”

Before senior executives can be evaluated, they have to be hired. Yet while the hiring process for government positions generally is being simplified, the system for executives remains complex and discouraging.

“Many top-notch candidates do not want to apply to the SES,” said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the subcommittee. “It is time to focus on fixing the SES hiring process.”

That’s particularly important because more than half of the SES will be eligible to retire within the next two years, Kichak said.

Most senior executives make a career of government service. Others are political appointees who come and go. Using political appointees in certain critical positions can defeat the purpose of the SES, Bonosaro said.

“The failure to provide career leadership at certain top positions — as was once the practice in government — has resulted in a loss of continuity and expertise,” she said. Bonosaro said the position of assistant secretary of administration in agencies should be held by career executives, as it is in the Justice, Transportation, and Health and Human Services departments.

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, urged Congress to cap the percentage of political executives at each agency, rather than the current 10 percent government-wide limit. (PPS has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post).

“While the government-wide average is 9 percent, the picture varies dramatically within individual agencies,” Stier said, adding that 20 percent of the Education Department’s SES corps are political appointees.

“Political and career leadership at the very top need to make investment in government’s senior executive corps a priority,” Stier said. “Simply put, a stronger SES is the single most important thing we can do to improve government performance, but it will not happen without the commitment of agency leaders and the White House.”

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

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