Senior Executive Service Needs Overhaul, Outside Study Finds

Max Stier, president of Partnership for Public Service, says he supports the OPM's new efforts to reshape how it oversees executives in the SES.
Max Stier, president of Partnership for Public Service, says he supports the OPM's new efforts to reshape how it oversees executives in the SES. (By Doug Demark)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Senior Executive Service is broken, mired in tired bureaucratic traditions and fails to attract top talent from outside government, according to a lengthy review of the government's elite managers by two outside organizations.

The report, from the good-government group Partnership for Public Service and the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, will be released Thursday. It comes amid new plans to reshape how the Office of Personnel Management oversees the roughly 7,000 career federal executives in the SES.

The service was established in 1978 during the Carter administration's civil service reform efforts, and its advocates hoped it would lead to a promotion system much like the military's, in which officers are promoted to generals only after serving in various capacities and different locations.

Instead, the study reports, civilian senior executives have mostly opted to stay within one agency, ascending its chain of command. Senior managers "have been viewed primarily as agency-specific assets, not federal or national assets," according to the report.

The study's authors spent more than a year analyzing OPM and agency data, and conducting interviews and focus groups with current and former SES members, academics, lawmakers and human resources experts.

The SES "receives way too little attention and needs to be overhauled in a very consequential way," said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership.

The report includes several recommendations, including one that would shorten the application process. The current setup relies too much on jargon-laced job descriptions and written essays that deter qualified private-sector candidates, some of whom hire writers to complete the application, according to the report.

The study's authors also suggest that the OPM establish an "elite corps" of managers that regularly move across agencies, as originally intended. But such a move, according to former senior executives, could be impractical.

"Part of the reason that people don't move is they get comfortable in a particular agency, they learn the policy issues and the policy challenges in a particular area, and they feel like that's their comfort zone," said Joseph A. Ferrara, a former Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget official who is now associate dean of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

"I got promoted because I became an expert in the policies in that area, not because I'm such a great executive who can go anywhere and do anything," Ferrara said.

Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said she has seen more senior executives move around in recent years than in the past. Still, "mobility can be overrated, because you really can't discount the importance of knowing the agency's business. How many executives should be playing musical chairs?" she asked.

Part of the challenge is that the OPM has failed to offer senior executives more mobility, Bonosaro said. "If an executive was applying to another agency, very often the reaction was, 'There must be something wrong with this applicant.' " The OPM should instead identify qualified executives for temporary or permanent reassignment, she said, especially during natural disasters, national emergencies or when an agency is adopting technologies or policies already in use at other agencies.

The OPM will begin to tackle these issues in a more organized fashion under plans unveiled Wednesday by Director John Berry.

The new SES office will serve as "a central crossroads in the federal government for senior executive service issues, like the ones raised by the Partnership, that regularly come up," Berry said in an interview, stressing that he considers SES essential to federal government operations.

Stier expressed support for Berry's new efforts and the government's renewed focus on its senior executives. "At the end of the day, these are the people that are the leadership over time. They're not there for 18 months to two years like political appointees," Stier said. "They're there running the show, year in and year out, and we need to be taking care of them."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company