Obama Announces Plans to Reform and Modernize the Senior Executive Service

Evan Vucci/AP

President Obama on Tuesday announced a series of initiatives aimed at reforming, improving and rewarding the federal government’s Senior Executive Service.

Obama spoke to a large crowd of SES employees and other senior leaders in government to unveil the new programs, calling some federal operations antiquated and in need of reform. He said Americans’ waning trust in government emphasizes the need to “constantly ask ourselves” how to improve it, and ensure future generations feel a calling for federal service.

The first initiative will create the White House Leadership Development Program, aimed at cultivating future career executives. The program will allow “top civil servants and SES candidates” to participate in rotational assignments at agencies across government to address government’s “highest priority, highest impact challenges,” Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta -- who also spoke at the event Tuesday -- and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert wrote in a blog post.

“The program is a step toward fulfilling the vision of the Senior Executive Service and developing senior civil servants with critical skill sets such as leading change, building coalitions, working across government to solve problems and performance management,” Archuleta and Cobert wrote.

Obama said the program provided a “terrific opportunity” to modernize government.

“One thing we have to acknowledge is that our government was statutorily organized for the needs of the 1930s, 40s, or 60s and too often we get stove-piped by it at a time when we need people with different skill sets at different agencies to be working together,” Obama said.

Obama also announced an advisory group on SES reform to be made up of both current and aspiring leaders. The group will provide advice on how to best recruit, hire, develop and retain senior career leaders. It will also develop “accountability mechanisms” for the SES, Archuleta and Cobert said.  

The president promoted a website formerly reserved for human resources personnel -- unlocktalent.gov -- now available to all SES members to provide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results directly to managers. Obama said the website and the advisory group will allow federal employees to have their voices heard.

“Most of the time, people get involved in government because they want to make a difference,” Obama said. “And there’s no greater satisfaction than when you see something that you identified as a better way of doing things implemented.”

Finally, Obama announced a new, non-monetary award program to recognize employees who improve customer service. The program will identify practices that can be replicated throughout government provide an opportunity for the administration to “highlight outstanding customer service.” There will be two types of awards: the Secretary Customer Service Awards given out by agencies, and a “limited number” of Presidential Customer Service Awards, according to Archuleta and Cobert.

“I’m surprised this hasn’t been done before,” Obama said, “but we're going to start.”

The initiatives are an extension of Obama’s management agenda, unveiled in March in his fiscal 2015 budget blueprint. The announcement was met with praise from good-government groups.

“President Obama deserves praise for his strong backing of the government's senior executives, his commitment to strengthen this all-important federal career leadership corps, and for creating a new program that will allow current and future executives to work across government to solve some of the nation's most pressing problems,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

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