'Broken' pay system driving SES out of government

Friday - 5/2/2014, 12:49pm EDT

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

A drive to serve the nation can't last forever when agency supervisors look around and notice their staff is making more money.

A survey of about 400 members of the senior executive service found multiple cases where General Schedule employees make "as much, if not more, in total compensation (base pay plus performance bonuses)" than members of the senior executive service and senior professional employees. The survey, which was taken in February by the nonprofit Senior Executives Association, lays some of the blame at pay freezes and the ongoing political hostility against civil servants.

"I have received either 'Outstanding' or 'Exceeded Expectations' during my seven-year SES tenure; never had a pay raise and no bonuses for the last three years. I hope to leave the federal government very soon," wrote one of the survey respondents.

SES sinking toward despair

More than half of the SES members who answered the survey are simply not happy with their jobs anymore. About 51 percent said their morale is either "low" or "very low."

A main cause is a perceived slap in the face from both the current administration and Congress. The SEA included comment sections in its survey for those responding. These are two of the more succinct opinions:

"Political appointees show zero respect for career senior executives in the agency ... not just me, but all regional directors share the same observation."

"In my opinion, after serving six years as an SES, it appears to me that no one in a position of power really cares at all about having any positive impact concerning the civilian workforce … no political leader really cares."

Worth noting is about 13 percent of all SES members surveyed report "high" or "very high" morale at the workplace. However, only the departments of Commerce and Agriculture averaged more than one in five people who believe morale is high in the upper ranks of their agency. The both scored almost two in five, to be precise.

The morale problem isn't just a product of negative peer pressure and politics, according to the SEA. Many senior executives don't believe their pay system is working the way it was designed, which is based primarily on performance awards.

Commerce happens to rank #3 among large agencies for satisfaction with pay in the 2013 Best Places to Work survey, published by the Partnership for Public Service.

That might just be coincidence, though, since a third of the senior executives at Agriculture reported high morale to the SEA, but the department ranks second to last in the amount of respect regular employees have for their senior leaders in the Best Places to Work survey.

Pay for performance system is 'broken'

The SEA survey revealed frustration in how senior executive service members earn the extra cash that distinguishes their position from lower ranks. SES members don't have access to cost-of-living adjustments, raises based on length of service, locality pay or overtime pay. Instead, they rely on base pay increases and cash bonuses, both of which are based on performance.

While the entire federal government felt a financial squeeze because of extended pay freezes and sequestration, the SES members face a unique challenge to earn a salary bump: They need cooperation from their colleagues and respective agencies.

In order to qualify for a performance-based award, someone needs to evaluate the SES member's performance:

"Although most employees reported having received final performance ratings for FY2013 at the time of SEA's survey (February), almost one-quarter had not over four months in FY 2014. Some major agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Interior, were reported to have only finalized small percentages of FY 2013 performance ratings," wrote SEA.

Even though a majority of senior executives received their performance evaluations, one in three said they still hadn't received their award, even at four months into the next fiscal year.

Some people are receiving high performance ratings but seeing little to nothing for their efforts. The SEA says many agencies — in particular the Defense Department — are working with smaller cash pools to divvy up bonuses because of budget cuts and sequestration. To compensate, they're giving out smaller rewards or changing performance ratings at the last minute.

Other senior executives received "time off" awards, which they said were "meaningless given their highly demanding workloads and current 'use or lose' annual leave status."

The survey also points to an accelerating pay compression that's equalizing the SES and GS 14 and 15 pay scales. As a result, it's "a source of rising frustration, a growing threat to retention and a major factor in discouraging high-performing GS 15s and 14s from actively seeking senior executive positions in their agencies," wrote SEA.