SES reform stalled, more progress needed

Wednesday - 9/19/2012, 4:00am EDT

Eduardo Ribas, chief human capital officer, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Download mp3

The President's Management Council, in February 2011, established a working group to identify, among other things, areas for improvement of the Senior Executive Service. OMB and OPM issued a joint memorandum to members of the SES, listing proposals to improve professional development programs; streamline cumbersome administrative processes; strengthen personnel performance management; and grow executive talent pools.

But by June 2011, movement on SES reform drew the ire of Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, who said results were still unclear from the President's Management Council's "ambitious" agenda.

Why SES reform was rated More Progress Needed
Reason #1: OPM issued memo on SES, acknowledging senior executives "under tremendous pressure" due to budget constraints.

Reason #2: Senior Executives Association has been critical of the memo's outcomes.

Reason #3: September 2012 Congressional Research Service report notes ongoing reform efforts.

(More primary source material available on The Obama Impact Resource Page)

For analysis, Federal News Radio turns to Eduardo Ribas, the chief human capital officer of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Ribas discusses where the reforms have stuck and what remains to be done.

The interview is part of Federal News Radio's special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years. Throughout the series, Federal News Radio examines 23 different ideas and initiatives instituted by the Obama Administration and ranks them as effective, ineffective and more progress needed.

Federal News Radio believes more progress is needed.

Building from within

According to Ribas, small agencies are looking to build senior talent from within their own ranks rather than looking elsewhere. He's heard from managers at other agencies who told him they've already started SES development programs to groom their own future leaders.

The White House has done two things to help agencies grow their next crop of senior managers, Ribas said.

"One, they've helped us out with hiring reform. That is something that's been a true success for not just us here at FERC, but for all the government. It allows us to better engage our hiring managers on determining their hiring needs. What skills they're looking for, where to go out and find these applicants and then, really, to have streamlined the process," he said.

These changes have helped FERC to get its hiring cycle down to about 90 days for executives and 80 days for general schedule employees. "That's something that the administration has helped us out and OPM," Ribas said.

The second thing the White House did was something that Ribas considered to be long overdue — reforming the governmentwide SES performance management system. This updated the way agencies assessed the performance of their executives.

"Through this effort, we will now do that consistently across government, through a five-level performance management system, which gives agencies a little flexibility, but will be a more standard approach across government," he said. "That's been a big, tremendous help."

Mobility and diversity

These changes have neither hampered an agency's ability to hire from outside nor hindered an executive's mobility, Ribas said.

"One of the benefits that the common system does give us is when an executive applies from another agency, we ask them for a copy of their latest performance appraisal," he said. "Since there were so many systems across government, it was difficult to assess what's this individual really capable of doing. Now with a common approach, we'll be able to speak the same language.

One area that Ribas said still needs improvement is promoting diversity in the SES. "We have some work to do," he said. "Through our leadership-development program at the commission, we have tried to look at diversity. We have had about 60 candidates or so who have gone through the process. We've tried to stress diversity in that cadre."

In addition, FERC has stressed the importance of diversity in entry-level hiring process as well.

"The pipeline that we're building is good," Ribas said. "Last year, about 44 percent of our entry-level hiring were minority candidates. That's almost double to the rest of our hiring. We're trying to build that pipeline, build a workforce that's representative of America and then, once we get them in the door, we kind of indoctrinate them in the commission and let them move up the chain."

More progress is needed

Despite the successes at FERC and Ribas' generally positive take on SES reform, Federal News Radio believes more progress is needed.

In particular, legislative solutions have proved inadequate.

Lawmakers earlier this year introduced companion bills in the House and Senate, both called the SES Reform Act of 2012. The bills would make adjustments to the SES pay system, reduce the ratio of noncareer to career senior executives and require agencies to enhance professional development opportunities for senior executives. Both bills still sit in committee.

Discussion on Senior Executive Service reform is unfinished. A September Congressional Research Service Report details the current options for reform with regards to pay compression, recruiting and retaining SES members, career development and training, mobility of SES members, diversity and OPM's management of the SES.


More from the special report, The Obama Impact: Evaluating the Last Four Years

Part 1: Evaluating the Obama administration's management initiatives

Part 2: Evaluating Obama's technology reforms

Part 3: Evaluating Obama's workforce initiatives

Part 4: Evaluating Obama's acquisition efforts

Part 5A: What would a second-term for President Obama mean for feds?

Part 5B: What would a Romney presidency mean for federal workers?