Moran crafting bill to shake up Senior Executive Service

Wednesday - 2/29/2012, 6:14pm EST

Emily Kopp reports from the Partnership for Public Service event.

Download mp3

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) says he will sponsor legislation to jostle the federal government's top career folks out of their "comfort zones."

"They're good people who can do more than they're attempting to accomplish," he said of senior executives. Moran spoke at the release of a report on the lack of mobility among Senior Executive Service members by the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company. The researchers found that nearly half of federal senior executives had never changed positions, contrary to what Congress envisioned when it created the SES in 1978.

Image: Partnership for Public Service.

By staying put, executives are more "insular in their thinking," which reinforces a stovepipe mentality among agencies, the report found. In addition, the lack of mobility makes it harder to fill the shoes of retiring senior executives. More than a third of the 7,100 career SES members could retire any day now.

Moran said he planned to work with the report's authors to craft a bill that would turn the SES into the "federal government's A-team."

The mission was personal, he said.

The federal government paid for Moran's graduate school studies 40 years ago in exchange for three years of post-graduate service as a financial-management intern who would rotate among departments. As a budget officer at the predecessor to the Department of Health and Human Services, Moran went to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to find out how he could save the agency money by consolidating migrant-worker programs.

"What an eye opener," he said. "I never would've been here had not some people had that vision that we need some people with that breadth of experience who get the whole composite picture of what the government is about."

Mandatory moves would be controversial

A Moran spokesperson said his legislation would address SES recruitment and retention problems, reform the compensation system and increase career development.

That sounds good to the Senior Executives Association. It has lobbied lawmakers for legislation that would address senior executives' pay, performance evaluations, career development and opportunities. It wants lawmakers to mandate that the government advertise interagency opportunities more widely. Most SES members who move around find out about those posts through word of mouth, according to the report.

On the Senate side, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) has sponsored similar legislation before and may do so again, SEA President Carol Bonosaro said.

But as much as SEA wants to see legislative action, Bonosaro said the group would oppose measures to make rotations mandatory.

35 percent of current SES members are eligible to retire immediately. The report states that greater mobility could help fill these talent gaps when they occur. (Graphic: Partnership for Public Service.)

"Mobility, as a general matter, will never be the absolute norm because of the tremendously diverse and far-flung missions of the departments and agencies," she said. "The very nature of many federal programs leads to the executives needing to have broad leadership, administrative talent, and the technical and professional knowledge of the program in question."

Rotations "need to be an option for agencies and not a requirement," she said. The 1978 law's "original intent was to empower agencies, not to bind them."

She said "a number of the provisions" recommended by the report's authors would tie agencies' hands.

The report says that federal leaders should make mobility a requirement for entry into the SES. But it stops short of mandating it for all SES members.

Moran suggested he was eager to address the issue of mobility, however, and said he would work with the Partnership for Public Service. As he sees it, Congress created the SES as a way "to give people a breadth of experience, let them rotate around, see the whole picture and then pursue an area of responsibility where they can make a difference."

"But it's not working if half of the folks are staying put," he said.

He quoted a senior leader at HHS, who told him that whenever employees are asked to do something new, they hire a consultant rather than do the work themselves.

"We've got too many people, even in managerial positions, who are protecting their comfort zones," he said.

Bonosaro took issue with that.

Most senior executives, she said, "are under tremendous challenges to produce and meet a whole wide variety of initiatives. The performance-management system has gotten tougher and tougher."

"That's not a zone that would make me comfortable," she said.

She added that many SES members had been in their positions for fewer than five years.

RELATED STORIES:

Agencies can benefit from more mobile SES, report finds

New SES appraisal system meant to align agencies

OPM's onboarding framework to ease SES' new-job jitters