One indication that its health needs help is the reluctance of many federal employees to apply for the SES. One of the more disturbing findings in the report is that “only about half of current GS-14 and GS-15 [the ranks just below the senior level] employees across government expressed interest in advancing” into the SES.
That’s a key statistic because it “indicates we’re failing in creating an environment of respect and recognition,” said Max Stier, the partnership’s president and chief executive.
One reason is pay. Is the extra money worth the stress? Will an employee even get higher pay with the promotion?
Although senior executives rate their job satisfaction about 20 points higher than lower-level workers on average, according to the partnership’s annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, SES pay sometimes is lower than that of the top-level General Schedule (GS) workers.
And despite the greater satisfaction rate, “Congressional and media scrutiny weigh on morale, and some senior executives report feeling unappreciated and detached in the workplace,” the report said. “Not surprisingly, survey data show suboptimal interest in joining the SES, threatening agencies’ efforts to maintain robust pipelines of future leaders.”
It’s also no surprise that the place with the lowest level of SES satisfaction and commitment, among the government’s largest agencies, is the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Senior VA executives have been the focus of intense criticism from Congress since revelations about the cover-up of long wait times at VA hospitals two years ago. Many involved were senior executives. Congress responded with a law that made it easier to fire senior VA executives by sharply cutting their civil-service appeal rights.
But now that law is in doubt.
In a letter to Congress last month, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department will not enforce the section of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act that denies senior VA executives the ability to appeal disciplinary actions to the presidentially appointed members of the Merit Systems Protection Board as other feds can. Denying senior VA executives that right “impairs the President’s ability to supervise the execution of the federal civil service laws” and is inconsistent with the Constitution, according to Lynch.
As a result of that letter, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said that “it would be irresponsible to continue using that authority when other methods for disciplining senior executives exist. In fact, doing so would only hinder VA’s ability to hold senior officials accountable who have engaged in wrongdoing and make those actions stick.”
The decisions by Lynch and Gibson were hot topics at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday, and Gibson is likely to be grilled about that when he appears before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday. “Everyone knows VA isn’t very good at disciplining employees,” said the House committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), “but this decision calls into question whether department leaders are even interested in doing so.”
But making it easier to fire senior VA executives compared with executives at other agencies isn’t likely to attract top-performing supervisors when they have many other options among workplaces also seeking the best talent.
There is little incentive for talented managers to join the SES “when they’re constantly bombarded by the ‘Alice In Wonderland’ ‘off with their heads’ approach that Congress has foisted on this singled-out group of government employees,” said Jason Briefel, interim president of the Senior Executives Association.
Recruiting is increasingly important because most SES members will be eligible to retire within 10 years, according to the report. “With the prospect of a looming retirement boom,” the report said, “agencies need to aggressively recruit and hire a diverse, highly qualified group of individuals.”
Beth Cobert, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), welcomed the Partnership’s report and said OPM is working with agencies “to continue to provide the tools and guidance needed to recruit, retain and develop the Federal Government’s senior leaders.”