The reception honoring Presidential Rank Award finalists came at a good time.

Honoring the members of the federal Senior Executive Service (SES) provides a bit of relief during this period of shortsighted congressional efforts to curtail civil service protections and bonuses of senior executives in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

About 100 SES members, including two from VA, were honored Thursday at a reception sponsored by the Senior Executives Association (SEA) Professional Development League. The setting was an ornate State Department reception room with eight chandeliers.

The finalists were nominated for the 2013 Presidential Distinguished and Meritorious Rank awards, which were suspended by the Obama administration for budgetary reasons. Under federal law, Meritorious Rank Award winners get a monetary prize equal to 20 percent of salary, while Distinguished Rank Award winners get a hefty 35 percent. Most senior executive pay ranges from $121,749 to $181,500 a year.

Last month, Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta announced the reinstatement of the awards. The 2013 finalists are eligible to be renominated this year.

Though no individuals will be award winners for 2013, NASA certainly is the big winner among agencies, at least on a per-capital basis. It is a much smaller organization than many agencies, yet it has far more finalists, 18, than any other agency except the Defense Department. Defense has 34 finalists. But it also had about 758,000 employees, compared with NASA’s 17,900, according to 2012 OPM data.

It’s worth noting that the two finalists from VA, also one of the larger agencies, both come from the inspector general’s office — Richard J. Griffin, the acting inspector general, and John D. Daigh, an assistant inspector general for health-care inspections.

Griffin is a finalist for a Distinguished Rank Award.
The report he issued last month confirmed long-standing allegations of mismanagement at VA facilities, cited “significant delays in access to care [that] negatively impacted the quality of care” at the Phoenix VA facility, and noted “a systemic problem nationwide” with “inappropriate scheduling practices.”

Ironically, the report issued by this feted VA SES member has given a boost to legislation that would stop performance bonuses for VA senior executives and curtail, if not eliminate, certain civil service protections.

Just a few hours before the reception, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced compromise legislation that would single out VA senior executives as a group for harsher treatment than most other government employees. The blatant unfairness of such action has been lost among its broad support by Democrats and Republicans.

The bill would allow the executives just seven days to appeal termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board and give the board only 21 days to make a decision. Because that process now takes about one year, the Senate plan is a joke without a massive infusion of resources for MSPB. Even that would not help feds unable to gather the materials — in just one week — necessary for a
well-argued appeal. SEA President Carol A. Bonosaro called the Senate’s proposed process “a sham.”

Griffin would not comment on the legislation but was full of praise for his colleagues.

“I must say that the majority of the credit for the accomplishments in my nomination package belongs to my co-workers in the VA Office of Inspector General,” he said in an interview. “I may have been the conductor, but they made the music.”

Yet his good work and that of Daigh, a Meritorious Rank Award finalist, demonstrate the craziness of congressional ways. Under mass punishment legislation approved by the House, no VA senior executives would get bonuses. The House and a Senate committee also have approved a measure that would allow the VA secretary to fire senior executives with no appeal rights.

In remarks prepared for the reception, Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, greeted SES members by addressing them, with affection, as “fellow bureaucrats.”

He said that “the nation owes you respect and thanks for the work you are doing,” then added:

“I am also certain that you need help. This government, this Congress, our presidents have not been as engaged as they should be in reforming some of the structures of administration, in supporting efforts to recruit and train your successors, and
in providing incentives to implement the best management practices. . . .

“The simple fact is that a sense of urgency about administrative reform seems to be lacking. Strong political support is absent. Even within the traditional bastions of research and education — our public and private universities — public administration has lost prestige.”

Sobering thoughts.

But it’s not just the loss of prestige. It’s the ongoing attacks on the workforce, with VA senior executives the current target.

The SES members celebrated at the reception have accomplished “monumental results that are of national and often international significance,” according to the OPM Web site. “This honor recognizes the exemplary achievements of these individuals as well as their agency’s appreciation of their contributions to the Federal government.”

Those nice words would mean more if they weren't diminished by congressional actions that would make VA senior executives second-class employees.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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Joe Davidson