A draft order now being considered says federal agencies “shall … gradually increase the rate of basic pay of all SES employees” to ensure they are not paid less than subordinates. Potential SES candidates would be allowed to apply using resumes instead of requirements placing “undue burden on applicants” such as multiple essay-style narratives. Rotational assignments for senior leaders would increase, permitting them to serve in other federal agencies, with local, state and tribal governments, and in certain outside organizations “to improve talent development, mission delivery and collaboration.”
Behind the scenes a new subcommittee of the President’s Management Council would monitor implementation of the order, keep management practices current and identify obstacles to effective government management.
Increasing compensation is the first recommendation in the draft order and a top priority for the Senior Executives Association (SEA), which represents senior leaders. It has long complained about a system that can result in lower level employees with greater pay than executives who have more responsibility and stress.
That’s not the only point of contention.
Congress and the administration angered senior executives last year with a law that undermines due process protections for top civil servants in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The SEA was upset with the administration’s temporary cancellation of the Presidential Rank Awards to the top staffers in 2013 for budgetary reasons. President Obama, however, was a hit with senior level leaders when he met with 3,000 of them in a Washington Hilton ballroom last December.
“Thank you,” he said then. “I’d like to come bearing raises and perks. But I can’t. But what I can do is tell you how important you are, not just to me, but to the country.”
At that gathering Obama announced three initiatives – a Leadership Development Program for Future Senior Career Executives, an advisory panel on SES reform and non-monetary Customer Service Awards to employees for “outstanding achievement” in public service.
For the association, these efforts and the draft document are fine — as far as they go. But the draft order, titled “Strengthening the Senior Executive Service,” is not strong enough to make the senior corps the employment attraction it needs to be, according to formal comments SEA submitted to the Office of Management and Budget.
“From the standpoint of career executives (and potential candidates for SES jobs), inadequate compensation, lack of pay-for-performance, limited recognition, increasing politicization within agencies, unrequited Congressional attacks, lack of Administration support, and expanding work-life imbalances are making the system increasingly unattractive – and threaten the future quality and commitment of the career executive corps,” SEA wrote. “In a word, the risk-reward imbalance of serving in the SES has worsened significantly in recent years.”
Furthermore, the administration and SEA have very different approaches to compensation increases. The draft’s call for increasing SES pay comes with this caveat: “as much as is practicable.”
Yet, how much is practicable is limited as long as the administration continues to impose a cut in the money available for senior executive bonuses, considered an integral part of their compensation package. An association letter accompanying its comments says the executive order should “lift the Administration’s long-standing, harmful cap on funding of performance awards … which has largely negated the pay-for-performance system.”
The SEA said the draft order “as written, is too weak and equivocal” to “ensure that the pay of SES employees is greater than the pay of those who work for them.”
Despite these issues, senior executives are happier in their workplace than lower level staffers, according to a report this year by Partnership for Public Service. It studies government management and workforce issues and found SES members enjoy “a much higher overall Best Places to Work satisfaction and commitment score than their employees.”
The Partnership and other organizations also offered comments on the draft order, which was praised by Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive. He said the attention on talent management, employee mobility, improved hiring and increased pay is the “right place to be focusing investment.”
The order would be implemented in stages, with agencies required to prepare a rotation plan for senior executives by May 31.