With snow and ice still covering many streets and sidewalks, it makes sense to go slow and take it easy and avoid any bold moves.

But if you’re a senior manager in a federal agency, that kind of caution can be stifling. Innovation and forward-thinking don’t flourish among the chary.

Yet, that is what the government’s Senior Executive Service is becoming, warns its employee organization.

“With increasing frequency many career senior executives are avoiding risk and are becoming inclined to make ‘safe decisions’ as opposed to the ‘right decisions’ — or decisions (in their minds) that could potentially be career damaging in the current climate,” says the Senior Executives Association.

This and other warnings are in a paper the organization prepared last month and shared with Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta. Its title is ominous: “Federal Career Executive Corps in Peril.”

One troubling issue concerning OPM officials is the potentially significant loss of institutional knowledge from the nearly one-third of SES members who are eligible to retire.

SEA says the 7,200 senior execs are being worn down by the constant stress of doing more with less, stagnant income, declining recognition and legislation like a bill that would allow employees accused of misconduct to be punished with unpaid leave before investigations into the allegations have been completed.

They feel a “growing weariness, circumspection, caution and fear that the difficult decisions they are tasked with making could be subject to second guessing and retribution by partisans in the Congress,” SEA says. “Further there is a growing sense among career executives that Administration political appointees are underutilizing their talents, undervaluing their contributions, questioning their expertise and judgment, and not being fully supportive during these difficult times.”

Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, said the SES “is key to our success, and [we] are actively exploring ways to best attract, develop and retain their talents. We are also exploring, as we always do, changes that can make them even more effective going forward.”

That feeling of SES weariness is not universal, but even some former senior execs with great work experiences fear the corps’ morale is being undermined by the inability of its members to meet the missions of their agencies because of declining resources. This notion of mission is big with federal employees. Federal pay gets lots of attention, but it is the sense of mission that drives feds, particularly the higher-level civil servants. Many of them could have bigger incomes elsewhere, and they didn’t get into this gig for the money, anyway.

Bill Fleming, a retired deputy chief human capital officer and human resources director at the Commerce Department, said his seven years in the SES were “a fantastic experience.” But he complained of increasingly having “more and more responsibility to take on and fewer staff. . . . It wears you down.”

Larry J. Goldberg, a retired principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, agreed. Being required to meet agency tasks, without the staff and resources to do so, “made it much more difficult to do one’s job as an SES employee,” he said.

Both Fleming and Goldberg are recipients of the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, which was suspended last year by the Obama administration. The awards came with big prizes, equaling 20 percent to 35 percent of the $120,000 to $180,000 salary of senior executives. Recognizing Uncle Sam’s tough straits, SEA suggested low-cost prizes, including a meeting and photo opportunity with the president and a signed letter or certificate from him. The administration hasn’t announced what it will do, much to the frustration of SEA President Carol A. Bonosaro.

“To date, it is deeply disappointing that no response has been forthcoming from the administration,” she said.

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which studies federal workplace issues, also urges President Obama to become more involved with top civil servants. Noting that Obama has never met with the SES as a group, Stier said the president has “a responsibility to motivate and invest in the top leadership of the organization he runs, and President Obama is not doing that.”

In apparent contrast to the SEA paper, a Partnership report on the SES issued in April indicates senior executives have relatively high morale: “The 2012 Best Places to Work index score, which measures job satisfaction and commitment, was 82.6 on a scale of 100 for members of the SES, compared to a score of 64 for all other employees, an 18.6-point gap. While it may not be surprising that the senior leaders scored higher — because, generally speaking, an organization’s leaders enjoy more autonomy and have more control over issues that affect them — the difference is quite stark.”

Stier said the SEA paper and the Partnership’s report are both right. Although the executives feel better about their jobs than other feds, Stier said “SES is in trouble right now.”

He called for a “whole set of reforms to reinvigorate the SES.”

Fleming put it this way: Continuing to ask senior executives to complete their mission without providing them the tools to do it is “like running your car without an oil change. It eventually catches up with you.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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