Administration revives awards for federal senior executives who save money

Joe Davidson
Columnist May 13

After a year-long nap, an awards program for senior level federal executives is stirring again.

The Presidential Rank Awards fell victim to last year’s sequestration budget cuts and were suspended even though finalists had been selected.

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

The Obama administration is bringing back the awards.

In a memorandum to department and agency heads, Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta said nominations for the awards are due June 5. Employees nominated last year may be renominated. She told officials to “consider the current challenging fiscal conditions . . . in determining the number of nominations to submit.”

Members of the Senior Executive Service and their counterparts in scientific fields are eligible for the awards. Federal law provides for monetary prizes — 20 percent of salary for a meritorious rank award and 35 percent for a distinguished rank award. Most senior executive pay ranges from $121,749 to $181,500.

While the awards have provided large monetary prizes, potentially more than $63,000, the savings generated by the honored executives have been much greater.

“Awards are given in recognition of scientific breakthroughs, improvements in the delivery of service to the American people, and work that has or will result in the saving of billions of dollars for taxpayers,” Archuleta said in a blog article Tuesday.

For example, the Senior Executives Association (SEA) said, the 2012 Distinguished Rank Award winners included:

●William J. Murphy, who recommended and implemented premium rate changes in an Agriculture Department federal crop insurance program that saved more than $2 billion.

●Elizabeth Tucker, who spearheaded a program that “screened and stopped hundreds of thousands of questionable [IRS tax] returns with fraudulent refunds of over $1 billion.”

●Larry J. Goldberg, who led a Department of Health and Human Services inspector general’s investigation resulting in a $2.3 billion settlement in a health-care fraud case.

“Needless to say, I’m delighted they have been reinstated,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro said of the awards, calling 2013 “a real morale-buster.” She hopes all 2013 finalists will be renominated.

Announcement of the revived awards comes just days after Public Service Recognition Week, during which the Partnership for Public Service announced the finalists for the Service to America Medals. Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and CEO, welcomed the renewed Presidential Rank Awards, but added, “there is more to be done.”

There is a multi-layered infrastructure, including congressional oversight, investigative agencies and the media, devoted to “finding things that are wrong,” Stier said. “If you want an organization to excel, you have to focus on what they are doing right and not just what they are messing up.”

The association tries to do that by holding a formal banquet celebrating the winners in State Department diplomatic rooms. This year, because there were no winners in 2013, the SEA will hold a reception next month for last year’s finalists. The finalists also will receive a letter of appreciation from Archuleta.

That’s good, but not good enough for Bonosaro.

“They deserve better than what they are getting from the administration,” she said.

Bonosaro wants President Obama to meet with the finalists and take a photo with them.

“Doing that is worthy of his time,” she said, especially since he spends some of that time “pardoning turkeys and welcoming the Miami Heat to the White House.”

Bonosaro also isn’t happy with the declining number of winners since Obama has been in office. Language in the memo sent to agency heads signals the administration seeks to keep the number down. “Agencies should expect an extremely rigorous review process,” Archuleta wrote. There were 76 distinguished winners in 2009, the highest number since 1995, but just 46 in 2012, according to the association. The fall in meritorious winners was even greater, from 268 to 84. There are about 7,400 senior executives.

OPM also focused on the character of the nominees in the instructions to agency heads, perhaps in reaction to congressional criticism of federal employees at the IRS and at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the memorandum, Archuleta said, “Nominees must meet stringent personal and professional standards.” She told agency leaders they “must exercise due diligence in reviewing . . . the background of nominees [including any issues relating to conduct].”

Bonosaro said the administration might be attempting to demonstrate it won’t tolerate misconduct, even though taking conduct into account “has been the practice for years.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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