SES reforms on pace for this summer

Wednesday - 3/30/2011, 7:19am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The administration's efforts to update and reform the Senior Executive Service (SES) could start paying dividends by the summer.

Nancy Kichak, the Office of Personnel Management's associate director for employee services, said several initiatives that the Chief Human Officer's Council started in May 2010 will be implemented over the next six months.

"I think the pooling together for some recruitment opportunities in the SES are very close to seeing some fruition," Kichak said after testifying Tuesday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on the Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia. "The mentoring programs are also very close. The group is on a high deadline and I think they expect to have things in place come this summer."

Kichak said the need to update the Senior Executive Service is great as more than 50 percent of the nearly 7,100 career members are eligible to retire in the next two years.

And the number of candidates to fill the pipeline to replace the retiring SESers is not filling up as fast agencies need it to be.

"Many top-notch candidates do not want to apply to the SES," said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the subcommittee. "A survey of CHCOs and upper level General Schedule employees in 2009 found that the complex process deterred many employees from applying to the SES. It is time to focus on fixing the SES hiring process."

Akaka is considering legislation to reform the SES. He asked Kichak and a panel of private sector experts for no or low cost suggestions to update the SES.

"We need to reduce the time to hire," he said after the hearing. "The process was so long in the past that some really top-notch people can't wait six months to find out if they will be hired. Training is another area so supervisors will be able to train the workers for efficiency."

Kichak said there were few areas the administration needed help with from Congress to improve the SES. The one big area is pay compression where SESers are capped and some make less money than the GS-15, step 10s they manage.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executive Association, said there are 88 pay systems that pay non-seniors executives the same or more than SESers.

"While it would not cost very much, given the small numbers of SESers, I recognize it would be difficult to fix right now," Bonosaro said. "But if we don't do something, even adding performance awards in the employees' high three, it's not a terribly attractive place to be at the moment."

Kichak said the administration doesn't support fixing the SES pay system in light of the current pay freeze for general schedule workers. She said, however, that in the future, Congressional help would be needed to address the fact SES pay has not kept pace with GS workers.

In the meantime, Kichak said the administration's top three priorities for SESers are recruiting from a diverse population of candidates, speeding up the hiring process and onboarding and mentoring new managers to ensure they have every opportunity to succeed.

The White House and OPM are leading several initiatives in each of these areas.

For instance, OPM has provided an onboarding program model to six agencies to test. The program focuses on the first 30 days and over the SESers first year so they understand the agency and how the government works.

"In partnership with the Federal Executive Institute, OPM is designing a governmentwide leadership development initiative that includes a candidate development curriculum, more frequent SES orientation programs and cohort networking opportunities," Kichak's written statement said. "OPM is also working with federal agencies to broaden networking and professional development opportunities for current SES members."

Along those same lines, OPM and the Presidents Management Council want to pilot interagency rotational assignments for employees at the GS 13-to-15 levels. The pilot includes nine agencies that will put potential managers in meaningful assignments to expand their skills.

"We expect that the wider use of rotational assignments will help cultivate a senior executive corps with more diverse views, perspectives and experiences," Kichak said. "We are developing candidate development programs so we can search broadly inside and out of the federal government to reach the broadest pool possible."

Akaka said that while diversity has improved over the last few years, it's not enough. As of June 2010, minorities made up 17 percent of the SES, up by one percent over the last three years, and women made up 31 percent of the executives, up two percent since 2007.