Senior federal executives lack mobility, study finds


The Senior Executive Service has not lived up to the vision lawmakers had when they created it in 1978 as a cadre of “seasoned managers” who move among federal agencies and sectors.

According to a new study from the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Co., mobility is “underutilized” in the federal government. The study found that only slightly more than half the 7,784 SES members have held different managerial positions within their own agencies, few have gained experience working in other agencies, and fewer still have experience working outside the federal government. Specifically, 48 percent of SES workers have never changed positions and only 8 percent have changed agencies, according to the study.

The report was based on interviews and focus groups with approximately 100 political leaders, senior executives and human resources personnel from 39 agencies.

“Initiatives designed to spur executive movement -- including, notably, joint-duty programs at the Department of Defense and in the intelligence community -- have yet to make a governmentwide impact,” the report stated.

The analysis identified several “hindrances” to mobility within the SES. At the federal level, the Partnership found no “system to facilitate mobility” -- executives have to rely on word-of-mouth to learn about SES opportunities.

Additionally, some agencies might “hoard talent,” particularly technical experts, the report found. Executives also might view mobility as punishment or not want to make a geographic move..

The Partnership recommended increasing mobility within the SES by including it in selection criteria and requiring SES candidates to demonstrate “multisector, multiagency or multifunctional experience.” The report also suggested experimenting with program designs to promote mobility, ensuring executives who relocate receive financial assistance, investing in programs that promote mobility early in an executive’s tenure and designating a single entity to be in charge of executive professional development.

“The original vision for the SES as a mobile corps of leaders has never come to fruition,” the report stated. “The federal government can revive that vision -- not just to be faithful to the spirit in which the SES was founded, but because greater executive mobility will improve the quality of the government’s leaders and, consequently, government performance.”

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