House hearing examines ‘viability’ of federal senior executive service

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 13, 2014

Federal senior executives may not have realized there’s a question about the existence of their elite crew.

Yet, that’s the implication from the title of last week’s House hearing on “The Viability of 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

General Schedule employees should not feel overlooked. A hearing asking “Is the Federal Government’s General Schedule (GS) a Viable Personnel System for the Future?” is scheduled for Tuesday.

With some members of Congress thinking that senior executives are overpaid and overprotected, there is a question about the viability of the SES in its current form. Congress now is poised to kill or badly cut certain SES civil-service protections in the Department of Veterans Affairs. That might just be the opening act.

After the hearing, the chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on the federal workforce, Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), said that “the Senior Executive Service is not meeting its intended purpose when it continues unsustainable management practices, such as uneven application of performance-bonus standards and failure to hold accountable employees who fall short of achieving agency goals.”

That expanded on the critical tenor of his opening statement: “This committee’s oversight work has shown that government continues to lack the quality executive leadership necessary to administer key government services and programs.”

That’s a clear jab at the 7,000 senior executives who think they are providing quality executive leadership. Most of them do.

But the ongoing VA scandal allegedly involving SES members in the falsification of patient wait-time records, and the related coverup, have provided an opening for Farenthold and others to raise questions about the operation of the SES as a whole.

The answers already emerging will not make SES members happy and, more important, could damage the fundamental notion of an independent, nonpartisan corps of executive civil servants.

Farenthold said the hearing provided “a chance to discuss how we can institute a system that allows agencies to more quickly and fairly remove incompetent leaders — whose appointments do not have time limitations — while guarding against politically motivated actions.”

Unfortunately, a House VA bill that Farenthold and many others supported did not guard against politically motivated actions. It would strip due-process protections from VA Senior Executive Service members, by allowing the department’s top political appointee to fire the workers, who would have no appeal rights. Congress also has considered another mass-punishment measure, prohibiting bonuses or performance awards for all SES members at VA.

“Punishing all VA senior executives by banning performance awards irrespective of performance or creating ‘at will’ employment in the SES, which could enable a new administration to clean out” employees aligned with the opposition political party “will do more harm than good,” said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. “The best current executives will retire, and excellent candidates will refrain from applying to the SES. And who will be left to provide the care and services which veterans need and deserve?”

Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, was among the strong majority that supported the House VA bill. Yet he spoke eloquently at the hearing about the need both to discipline wayward senior executives and to guard against a spoils system.

“I hope that, in the name of government reform, we don’t forget a key lesson from our history and inadvertently return the federal government to an era susceptible to political patronage and corruption,” he said.

Lynch said he will propose legislation allowing VA to take back performance awards granted to those guilty of misconduct, a bill Farenthold indicated he might co-sponsor. Committee members also were understandably critical of employees keeping their SES pay even if demoted to a lower rank.

Samuel Retherford, a VA principal deputy assistant secretary, told the panel that VA already has the authority it needs to discipline employees.

“To remain competitive in recruiting and retaining the best personnel to serve our veterans, we must rely on tools such as incentives and awards that recognize superior performance,” he said.

Stephen T. Shih, a deputy associate director at the Office of Personnel Management, said during their probationary period staffers generally can be removed from the SES after written notice, but without a performance rating and with no opportunity for appeal. Agencies are required to remove workers from the SES if they get less than fully successful ratings twice in any three consecutive years.

Those and other disciplinary provisions probably are not enough to stop legislative changes to the SES. Some of those changes might make sense. Mass punishment does not.

With “an essentially broken pay-for-performance system,” a “series of punitive legislative proposals” and “an atmosphere which inhibits risk-taking,” Bonosaro described a Senior Executive Service in crisis. How Congress responds is crucial.

Morale among SES members is already bad and talented lower-level employees are declining to join them, Bonosaro said.

“The service may well become a place of last resort,” she added, “as high-performing employees take their skills to the private sector.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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