Senate bill seeks to reform Senior Executive Service

Friday - 3/30/2012, 12:25pm EDT

Carol Bonosaro, president, Senior Executives Association

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Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced a bill Thursday to address problems within the Senior Executive Service. The bill would link the General Scedule with the pay system for senior executives and let senior executives include their performance bonuses in their retirement calculation.

The bill came out of a Senate hearing Akaka chaired last year entitled "Strengthening the Senior Executive Service: A Review of Challenges Facing the Government's Leadership Corps." Witness testimony reported on shortcomings in SES diversity, training and development.

The hearing also detailed disincentives members of the SES encountered compared to General Service positions, such as increased workload and responsibilities with little compensation and fewer workers' rights. The end result: individuals were disinclined to join the SES.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) (AP)

"In 2004, Congress enacted reforms linking SES pay to Congressional pay, which has not kept pace with the General Schedule," Akaka said in his SES Reform Act (S.2249) floor statement. "As a result, the GS pay scale overlaps substantially with the lower end of the SES. This means that a senior executive may be paid less than employees he or she supervises."

If enacted, Akaka's bill would bolster SES performance management and erase disincentives in several ways.

First, performance awards would be added to base pay, allowing it to be calculated for retirement purposes. Second, in order to increase performance ratings transparency, the bill would require that an explanation be included when a rating is given that is lower than an initial rating. Third, the bill prohibits quotas in performance pay adjustments.

"Restoration of career leadership and career development are important components of this legislation," Akaka said. "A Senior Executive Service Resource Office would be established to collect data on the SES and oversee candidate development, management and training."

As a way to encourage diversity in the SES, the bill requires ethnic minorities, women and individuals with disabilities be included in the SES hiring process whenever possible.

The bill includes language similar to that of the Senior Executive Service Diversity Assurance Act introduced by Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.)

Restoring career leadership

One group that was pleased by Akaka's announced legislation was the Senior Executives Association, which proposed the bill and has been working on it for three years.

Carol Bonosaro, president, SEA

SEA President Carol Bonosaro outlined the key elements contained in the bill Friday for The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

"One has to do with what we call restoration of career leadership," she said. "The provisions there, we think, are important for two reasons. First, to maintain continuity. Career executives have a long-term view. They have deep knowledge. In fact, research has shown that they have better management capabilities than political appointees."

The legislation also provides career opportunities and promotes more communication among the career political team, facilitating a partnership Bonosaro said was essential for success.

Other key elements of the bill, according to Bonosaro, address reforming the pay and performance management system and dealing with career development.

"Those are important because, with the high SES retirement eligibility rates, we are really concerned that we do everything we can to attract the best and the brightest for the next generation," she said.

Although Akaka's bill fails to provide locality pay for senior executives, it does provide for executives who receive an appraisal of "fully successful" or better to receive an adjustment at least equal to what the General Schedule receives.

Support for bill, but more work needed

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, wrote a letter to Akaka, praising him for taking the first step in reforming the SES.

Max Stier, president and CEO, Partnership for Public Service

Stier wrote: "The bill requires agencies to establish onboarding programs for new executives; allows agencies to establish inter-agency, inter-governmental and inter-sector rotation programs; requires the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to maintain a centralized database of these rotation opportunities, as well as a profile registry to assist agencies and senior executives in making rotation decisions; encourages greater diversity of the SES; and codifies the Executive Resources Office at OPM, which among other responsibilities will administer an exit survey for individuals leaving a position in the SES to understand the reasons for their departure."

He called the changes worthwhile but said more needed to be done.

"Congress should require that they conduct an assessment when an SES position becomes available to determine if the position is truly an SES position and managerial in nature, or reclassify it to Senior Level (SL) or Senior Technical (ST), if the management responsibilities are not paramount," Stier wrote.

In addition, Stier said reform legislation should strengthen the Candidate Development Programs (CDP) by requiring agencies to match-up CDPs with their succession plans and bring mentors into the CDP process.

"We recommend improving the CDP rotational experience by extending the minimum length of a rotation to six months, requiring onboarding programs, ensuring the rotational experience is at the executive level and providing reorientation for CDP participants when they return to their home agencies," Stier wrote.

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