Breaking Ranks

In April, I had the privilege of attending the Senior Executives Association’s annual Presidential Distinguished Rank Award banquet, honoring the recipients of the highest awards to civil servants for on-the-job performance. 

I’ve attended the annual event several times. As usual, it was a classy, dignified affair, held at the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms, featuring an address by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. And lest you think it was an example of questionable federal spending, the event was, in fact, funded by SEA’s Professional Development League, with corporate support.

But it may be the last time SEA has any executives to celebrate.

That’s because the Obama administration has decided that in the era of sequestration, awarding bonuses of 20 percent to 35 percent of salary to the highest performing 1 percent of the government’s senior executive corps is unseemly. (Another 1 percent of senior level scientific and technical executives can receive the rank of Distinguished Senior Professional.) In early June, the administration announced it was canceling the Presidential Rank Awards (which also honor a group of officials designated as Meritorious Executives) for 2013. The idea, the White House said, was to preserve all available funding “to protect agency mission to the extent practicable.”

The move is just the latest in a series of changes to the program that have resulted in downplaying the achievements of senior federal executives—and all federal employees. Years ago, Presidential Rank Award winners were feted at the White House and personally praised by the president. Gradually, the awards took on a lower and lower profile, to the point that even before canceling the program, the Obama administration barely acknowledged its existence. 

On the surface, this is understandable. President Obama came into office at a time not only of intense pressure to cut federal spending, but in the aftermath of an economic collapse that saw executives of major financial firms continue to get hefty bonuses at a time when their companies sought bailouts from the government. Politically, it’s not a great time to call attention to a program that bestows thousands of dollars in monetary awards to federal executives.

But if the government wants to attract and retain the kind of leaders who can bring innovation to the federal sector, recognizing and rewarding the best of the best is critical. The accomplishments of this year’s honorees included:

- Leading a team of government and private sector members to retrofit more than 6,000 airplanes with hardened cockpit doors.

- Implementing premium rate changes in the $100 billion federal crop insurance program to save more than $2 billion.

- Getting a massive new health insurance program up and running in four months. 

- Developing a new global weather model that dramatically improved hurricane track predictions.

SEA estimated that on the whole the 2012 award winners saved the government more than $94 billion.

The summer of 2013 is shaping up to be the season of scandal in Washington, with headlines highlighting everything from IRS targeting of right-wing groups to National Security Agency snooping on Americans’ communications to accusations of a cover-up of personal misconduct by State Department officials. 

Under such circumstances—and in an era of almost unprecedented budget pressure—the Obama administration apparently has decided it just wouldn’t look good to continue  a program that rewards distinguished federal executives. But it is precisely because government is getting such a black eye these days that it is important to honor those officials who are doing things the right way, and achieving impressive, sometimes world-changing results. The president shouldn’t downplay the achievements of outstanding leaders in federal agencies. He should highlight their accomplishments—and give them the bonuses they’ve earned.

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