Three of the 2016 and 2017 winners of the Presidential Rank Awards for federal senior executives are, from left, AnnMarie Highsmith, Custom and Border Protection’s deputy chief counsel; Audrey Davis, Defense Finance and Accounting Services’s principal deputy director; and Richard Merrick, retired chief science adviser at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. (Custom and Border Protection; Defense Finance and Accounting Services; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries)
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During these crazy times in Washington, it’s refreshing to take a good news break.

Recent headlines in this space told depressing and infuriating tales of sexual abuse, poor government service and leadership vacuums.

But not today.

This column is about the remarkable accomplishments of federal senior executives, the highest-ranking members of the government’s civil service. The Senior Executives Association (SEA) honored the 2016 and 2017 Presidential Rank Award winners Thursday.

These awards are serious business. The two categories of winners, distinguished and meritorious, get more than a certificate from Staples. Federal law provides meritorious winners a monetary prize equal to 20 percent of salary, while distinguished winners receive 35 percent. Senior executive annual pay ranges from $124,406 to $187,000.

Nominees go through a rigorous review process by government officials. The result is only 1 percent of career senior-level staffers are selected in the distinguished category. Up to 5 percent are recognized for the meritorious award.

SEA President Bill Valdez provided examples of “the impact of career leadership” at the beginning of the organization’s Leadership Summit at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. He said the 36 Distinguished Rank Award honorees for 2017:

  • Managed agency or project budgets averaging $12.8 billion.
  • Led projects with an average economic benefit of $9.16 billion.
  • Were individually responsible, on average, for nearly half a billion dollars in savings to taxpayers.
  • Secured total budgetary savings of more than $650 billion.

The awardees, he added, “include at least two Nobel Prize winners; scientists who have revolutionized their respective fields and, indeed, created new ones; career leaders who have made decisions impacting huge swaths of our economy; and heroic members of the federal law enforcement community who are leading the international effort to combat trafficking and global terrorism.”

Valdez, a 2007 meritorious award winner, became the association’s president in September 2016, after retiring as an Energy Department senior executive two years earlier. He changed the award ceremony from a banquet in the State Department’s ornate reception room to the all-day summit that includes a dozen workshops with meal functions.

Rank award winners are a decidedly optimistic and enthusiastic bunch. Inevitably, they credit their success to their co-workers. That’s quite a contrast to President Trump’s comment last month about the release of UCLA basketball players who were detained in China on shoplifting charges. “IT WAS ME” (his caps), he tweeted, dissing White House and State Department staffers.

You can find the award winners’ names, agencies and photographs on SEA’s website. Unfortunately, we can’t profile all of them, so here is a little bit about three Distinguished Presidential Rank Award winners:

  • AnnMarie Highsmith, Customs and Border Protection’s deputy chief counsel, worked on money-laundering and drug-smuggling cases before going into management. Her work on fraud and trade compliance helped boost the collection of delinquent revenue by 40 percent in 2012. She loves her work. “The mission is important,” she said over the luncheon din. “Secure the homeland. I consider it a great privilege to be able to contribute to that, I really do.”
  • Audrey Davis is the principal deputy director of the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS). In addition to other achievements, her work helped the agency exceed its goals for telework and hiring people with disabilities and double Combined Federal Campaign charitable contributions. “I thoroughly enjoy working with the greatest employees in any federal agency,” she said. “Their dedication to supporting America’s heroes is inspiring and gets me into the office every day. What do I not like? Nothing comes to mind with the possible exception that one day I’ll have to leave DFAS.”
  • Richard Merrick was the chief science adviser and director of scientific programs of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) before retiring this year. Among his many accomplishments was helping to develop a national climate science strategy. During his last few years on the job he especially liked “developing national science initiatives and policies that could help NOAA move forward on its conservation agenda, particularly with respect to the effect of changing waters on marine ecosystems and coastal communities . . .” he said. “Throughout all these years, the best part of the job may have been working with the extraordinary group of dedicated, world-class scientists employed by NOAA” and the federal government generally.

The Senior Executives Association also took Pearl Harbor Day to honor a veteran, a fed who is not a senior exec but who, the organization said, is “almost certainly the longest serving federal employee in history.”

Sarkis Tatigian has worked for the Navy for 75 years, first as a civilian in 1942, then as a sailor in World War II, and back in the civil service since 1946. Walking unaided at 95-years-old and now an associate director in the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) small business program, he’s seen many changes during those decades, notably, he said, “increased efficiency in communication due to information technology.”


Sarkis Tatigian honored in September 2017 for 75 years of service to the Navy. (Navy photo)

His work environment also has improved. “There is more sensitivity to having a clean, safe and environmentally healthy workplace,” he said.

But not everything is better. What he finds worse probably will get worse.

That’s the “increased stress of life in Washington, D.C.,” he said, “due to the difficulty of commuting and personnel shortages in the government workforce.”

Read more:

Despite Trump, federal employee morale improves under Trump

Federal employees honored at gala get Trump’s praise, no ‘swamp’ talk Trump could learn from federal employee Service to America Medal winners