Witnesses offer improvements for SES

Wednesday - 3/30/2011, 1:06pm EDT

John Buckner
Federal News Radio

Federal management experts suggested ways Congress can reform the Senior Executive Service in times of low morale and increased stress due to budget constraints.

Witnesses Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, and Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on the Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, on Tuesday.

"To ensure that the SES remains the high caliber corps that it is today, it is necessary to review potential problem areas and discuss needed reforms," said Bonosaro in her written testimony to the subcommittee.

Both panelists addressed the need for fewer political appointees and more career leaders in the SES.

"The biggest root cause, frankly, of management dysfunction in government is that you have short term political leaders that are not aligned with the long term needs of the organizations they run," Stier said. "So, you get a political appointee that's in office for 18 months to two years, their incented to focus on crises management and policy development."

Bonosaro said that agencies do have a 25 percent cap on the number of politically appointed positions. One fault she found with the requirement is that it only applies to authorized positions and not the actual positions that are filled.

"Not only, with this proliferation of political appointees, do you minimize opportunities for career advancement or career senior executives but you create so many layers that you inhibit communication between top leadership and the career executives who are there trying to meet the administration's objectives," Bonosaro said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) asked the witnesses in reforming SES, why the hiring process at SES is slower than the General Schedules.

"One of the real additions for time to the hiring process are the sign-offs going up the agency chain," Bonosaro said.

Akaka followed by saying that he has worked on hiring reform and asked about the phasing in of a joint work experience requirement for SES.

Stier said requiring prospective SES employees to have experience within other agencies would increase their ability to handle the requirements of communication and collaboration as a senior executive.

Akaka also asked the witnesses about the implementation of rotations for senior executives as needed for business purposes.

"I think that there clearly is very often a business purpose, whether it's for purposes of developing executives so that they a good succession plan in place to fill what they anticipate will be vacancies," said Bonosaro.

Bonosaro said that it will take more than a year before employees could take advantage of a rotations system to benefit their careers.

Bonosaro and Stier also mentioned that the pay and performance management system needs to be fixed as well as increasing diversity in the workplace.

Bonosaro's recommendations:

  • Include performance awards in a Senior Executive's "high three" annuity calculations The SEA believes this would provide incentives to higher quality candidates for senior executive positions and would not cost an agency more money.
  • Provide an assured increase in salary to new Senior Executives To reduce overlaps in pay when a senior executive comes from the GS, SEA suggests a five percent guaranteed salary increase.
  • Require transparency measures be implemented for ratings and performance appraisals. SEA suggests keeping senior executives informed on their ratings and let them know if a low rating was given.
  • Prohibit the use of quotas. The SEA would like to end the determinations of rates of pay based on quotas or forced distributions of ratings.

Stier's recommendations:

  • Increase oversight.
  • Require mobility prior to an SES position.
  • Require an onboarding program for new employees.
  • Enforce a 10 percent cap on non-career employees in agencies.

John Buckner is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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