Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, and Margaret Weichert, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, speak at the awards presentation for top-level federal civil servants. (Bruce Hollywood)
Columnist

It’s always good to recognize the contributions of civil servants who make sure government’s work gets done, but never more than during a period with too much partisan warfare.

Exceptional members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), recipients of the annual congressionally established Presidential Rank Awards, were honored Thursday for their outstanding work.

“A Presidential Rank Award is the most prestigious award in the Federal career civil service,” the Office of Personnel Management said in a February memorandum to agency heads that asked them “to nominate your most exceptional career executives and senior professionals — those who have made extraordinary and lasting contributions to the Federal Government.”

Exceptional is the key word.

The awards are given to two categories of senior executives. “Distinguished Rank” recipients are no more than 1 percent of the SES and are “recognized for sustained extraordinary accomplishments,” according to the Senior Executives Association. “Meritorious Rank” recipients are awarded to the 5 percent of the top-level feds “recognized for outstanding achievement to enhance the mission of their agency.” Other senior career-level, scientific or professional employees also are eligible for both categories.

Recipients get a framed certificate signed by the president. They can’t take that to the bank, but that’s not all they get.

The monetary award for the 46 Distinguished Rank recipients is 35 percent of their annual basic pay. For the 85 Meritorious Rank recipients, it’s 20 percent. Basic SES pay in 2018 ranges from $126,148 to $189,600. The Senior Executives Association (SEA) and its Professional Development League estimated that the 2017 winners saved the government more than $500 billion.

The organization hosted the Presidential Rank Awards Leadership Summit at the Mayflower Hotel on Thursday to honor the recipients and discuss a range of issues important to government service.

SEA President Bill Valdez said the summit focused on the need “to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government so that we can deliver greater value to the American public … the American public doesn’t perceive that we are delivering sufficient value as a federal government.”

The list of awardee accomplishments certainly demonstrated their value as federal employees. That list is too long to replicate here, but the SEA provided summaries of their accomplishments, including these:

* Johnie Jenkins of the Agricultural Research Service helped “eradicate the boll weevil and increase resistance to nematodes, bollworms and plant bugs.”

* Russell Frasz “combined 82 Air Force base tuition assistance programs into one entity,” resulting in saving $20 million and 35 percent of staff time.

* Venkatachalam “Ram” Ramaswamy of the Commerce Department “enabled the development of a single global modeling system … the first of its kind in the world, which reduced the cost and increases the speed for forecasting extreme weather events.”

* Soraya Correa of the Department of Homeland Security reduced the response time for Freedom of Information Act “requests from 80 to 20 days and enabled the E-Verify system to process 25 million employment verification inquiries at an accuracy rate of 98.8 percent while maintaining a 3 to 5 second response rate.”

* Lisa Pape managed Department of Veterans Affairs programs that “achieved a 47 percent decrease in veteran homelessness since 2010, including a 17 percent decrease between January 2015 and January 2016.”

* Sherri Berger of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention worked to increase the agency’s “budget in a difficult environment, including securing billions in funding for opioid abuse, antibiotic resistance, as well as the Ebola and Zika emergencies.”

The senior executives’ summit came one day after the release of the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report. It showed declining federal employee engagement at most agencies under the Trump administration. Valdez said the actions of political leaders “in Congress and elsewhere … have not been helpful to morale-boosting employee engagement in the federal workforce.”

Asked how President Trump’s Oval Office declaration Tuesday — that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security” — affected senior executive morale, Valdez deflected to the problems and the “great deal of frustration” temporary budget measures cause employees.

“We’re hopeful that there will not be a shutdown,” he said. “We look forward to getting on with the business of government.”

Pressed, Valdez said he did not want to get into the politics surrounding Trump’s statement.

“The career SES, we’re nonpartisan,” Valdez said. “They follow the direction of the commander in chief. And if he thinks it’s a good idea to shut down the government, then everybody will salute, and you know those agencies affected will do their best to manage under those resources.”

Good soldiers.

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