Top civil servant mobility program appears mostly stagnant
By Joe Davidson,
Hugh Hurwitz is among the tiny number of federal employees who have used a government personnel program the way it was intended. He could be the poster child for Senior Executive Service (SES) mobility.
When the SES was formed in 1978, it was meant to be a corps of top federal civil servants who rotated among agencies to get a broad base of experience, according to a report released Wednesday. The idea was that varied agency experiences would help different offices work on common goals, expose individuals to new challenges and promote a more effective government.
The theory still sounds good, but the practice is lacking.
The report, “Mission-Driven Mobility,” says “almost half of the U.S. government’s 7,100 senior executives have stayed in the same position in the same organization their entire SES career. A mere 8 percent have worked at more than one agency during their SES tenure.”
Hurwitz is part of that 8 percent.
He’s been in and out of federal service since 1988 and was a Justice Department lawyer before joining the SES in 2003. Since then, he’s had two SES gigs in each of two agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the Education Department, where he is now the deputy chief financial officer. In addition to being a lawyer and number cruncher, he’s also been in procurement and information technology.
If Uncle Sam gave a butcher, baker and candlestick-maker award, Hurwitz would more than qualify.
Moving around like this is considered a good thing for individuals like Hurwitz and the agencies they work for, according to the report prepared by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and the Partnership for Public Service, which has a content sharing relationship with The Washington Post.
The study says rotation at the senior levels “allows individual agencies to build executive managerial skills, fill vacancies strategically and infuse new thinking into the organization.”
Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executive Association, differs with the assertion that rotation among different departments was among initial SES goals. She has no problem with that level of mobility, however, as long as it is optional.
“Government-wide mobility is not likely to ever be the norm, given the diverse missions of various agencies,” she said.
That hasn’t been a problem for Hurwitz. “For me, it’s been great,” he said. “Personally, it’s given me opportunity to do things differently . . . to extend my career.”
Yet, his experience is the exception, at least in part because of barriers that make mobility difficult. The report said the absence of a government-wide system to facilitate mobility is the biggest problem.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) once had a program to facilitate SES mobility. A 1980 OPM memo describes an “SES Pilot Program for Brokering Mobility.” But OPM “abandoned the effort by the early 1980s when other issues took precedence,” the report said. “Since then, neither OPM nor any other governmental entity has filled the void.”
The barriers led to the “shockingly small” percentage of executives who have worked at more than one agency, said Nora Gardner, a McKinsey associate principal, who was one of the lead authors of the report.
The study also identifies a potential problem that could develop in the next few years. Almost two-thirds of SES members will be eligible to retire in five years. There’s been no big wave of retirements yet, but if many of them decide to go about the same time, government management could be in trouble.
Increasing mobility could help counter any retirement wave. The report offers suggestions for generating greater mobility, including creating incentives, such as “access to mentorship programs, sabbaticals, networking opportunities and financial rewards.”
Another area where SES mobility is lacking is in the entry of African Americans and Latinos to the elite corps. It’s a long-standing problem that’s beyond the scope of the new report.
Perhaps incentives and greater creativity could help increase the representation among African Americans and Latinos in the SES. An almost invisible 3.7 percent of the corp is Hispanic, and just 9.3 percent are African Americans, according to OPM figures in a September 2011 Center for American Progress report.
“Improving diversity,” the center said, “will lead not just to a more representative senior civil service, but a better government.”