Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) will introduce a senior executive service reform bill Wednesday that will change elements of the compensation model, career management and the hiring process for the government’s most senior civilian employees.
Chief among the bill’s proposed reforms is pay compression between senior executives and top general schedule employees. The most senior general schedule employees, GS-14 and GS-15, make $123,758 to $155,500, whereas senior executives make $119,554 to $179,700, according to figures from the Office of Personnel Management.
Since 2004, senior executive pay has been tied to whether Congress gives its members a pay raise. But Congress hasn’t voted itself a pay raise since 2009. That may be politically expedient during a recession, Moran said in an interview Tuesday, but the pay for senior executives has stalled. Nor do senior executives receive overtime pay or locality adjustments, even when they relocate to the expensive Washington area.
The bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), would fix a 2004 law that had tried to fix pay compression.
“It’s not working the way it was intended and there are a number of reasons. The principle reason is there’s insufficient incentive to enter into the SES. In fact, there’s a disincentive because of compensation,” Moran said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
The bill would also cap the number of politically appointed senior executives at 15 percent per agency based on the number of positions filled, not authorized. Currently, political appointees can fill 25 percent of allocated positions per agency, and 10 percent government-wide. The current setup can make senior executive ranks top-heavy with political appointees, who rotate in and out of agencies and tend to receive lower ratings from employees, according to a study conducted by David E. Lewis, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University. The bill would also require that assistant secretary positions for administration and management in each agency would have to be filled by career executives.
Senior executives would also receive a written explanation of performance review ratings, which will lend credibility to a system that the Senior Executive Association has called “arbitrary and politicized.”
All of these provisions are identical to an SES reform bill introduced by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) in March.
“There’s an awful lot of good to be said about congressman Moran’s bill. It’s been a long time, frankly, since the SES has seen any updating,” saix Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service.
Moran’s bill has some differences from the Senate proposal
It would allow people to apply for senior executive positions with a résumé and cover letter rather than the Executive Core Qualification narrative, which Moran called so cumbersome that some people hire consultants to fill them out. That system alone keeps quality talent from even applying for senior executive positions, Moran said.
“Close to 40 percent of the SES is retirement eligible right now,” Stier said. “We’re going to see enormous turnover in the SES and we need to recruit talent from inside and outside government.” The Partnership has a contribution agreement with The Washington Post.
Stier said the vast majority of senior executives rise through the government, and the system does a poor job of attracting non-government talent. A cumbersome application process wards off prospective talent, and the government is already disadvantaged because of salary limits.
“If the entrance fee is you give up a ton of salary but also go through an obstacle course to apply and you won’t hear forever, forget it,” Stier said.
During an interview, Stier said he would have liked to see reforms of senior executive mobility included in the bill. A report by the partnership found that 8 percent of senior executives have worked for more than one federal agency. Mobility, Stier said, would expand the government’s knowledge base and talent pool.
The bill also reforms the Candidate Development Programs, intended to be a key feeder of talent into the senior executive service. But according to Moran’s office, 11 percent of career senior executives rise through the program. The proposal by Moran and Connolly would align the program with forthcoming vacancies and provide mentors to new hires so that a replacement executive would be better prepared to continue the work of his or her predecessor.
An onboarding program would offer an extended orientation to new senior executive hires so they have a better grasp of departmental mission priorities planning and review of performance objectives.
Senior executives are more dissatisfied with their payment structure than the rest of the federal workforce, according to a 2011 study by the Partnership for Public Service. Government employee satisfaction with pay dropped 6.1 percent last year, according to the study, and 7.8 percent for senior executives.