Nearly 70% of SES Are About to Experience Their First Presidential Transition as Executives

Construction continues on the Inaugural platform in preparation for the swearing in of President-elect Donald Trump. Construction continues on the Inaugural platform in preparation for the swearing in of President-elect Donald Trump. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Sixty-eight percent of the federal government’s top career corps will experience their first presidential transition in January as senior executives, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management.  

The bulk of the current career Senior Executive Service – composed of roughly 7,000 individuals across the executive branch – were appointed to the SES during the past seven years during the Obama administration, data from OPM’s internal Enterprise Human Resources Integration tool shows. The SES plays a critical role in every presidential transition, supporting and educating political appointees about how government works, and often temporarily serving in top agency jobs during the lengthy appointee confirmation and onboarding process.

Given that many of President-elect Donald Trump’s political appointees are expected to be Washington outsiders with little or no experience serving in the federal government, the experience and judgment of senior executives during this particular transition could be more important than ever.   

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“We do a pretty good job of selecting really good senior leaders,” said Steve Shih, deputy associate director for the Senior Executive Service and performance management at OPM, and a senior executive since 2008. “They’re equipped with the executive skills, appreciation and commitment to public service where they will be able to effectively lead through this transition.”

Shih recently hosted the second of OPM’s biannual career briefing for new SES members, and there was a lot of discussion about the transition, he said. “With any transition, as I mentioned, there is uncertainty and change -- that causes anxiety and stress,” Shih said. “In many ways, though, people expect significant change with the upcoming administration given the change in the political party. This is a transition where one party will be in charge of the House and the Senate, as well as the executive branch, so because of this, there is a greater potential for a reform agenda that involves greater change.”

But the fact that most current senior executives will mark January 2017 as their inaugural presidential transition at the SES level is neither cause for concern, nor even that unusual, said current and former SESers, as well as those familiar with the process. According to OPM, 65.8 percent of the SES in 2007 and 2008 had not been through a presidential transition as senior executives before Obama took office.

“We are transitioning all the time, whether it’s the [presidential] transition or not,” said Jason Briefel, legislative director at the Senior Executives Association.

“There is constantly new brass, and politicals,” Briefel said, a point echoed by others Government Executive talked to for this story. Briefel also said that the 32 percent of senior executives that already have been through a presidential transition at the SES level are the most seasoned, and therefore the ones likely to be the “initial touch points” for appointees. Those SESers will be working in the departments’ C-suites with the agency landing and transition teams, Briefel said.

Dan Blair, outgoing president of the National Academy of Public Administration, said the 68 percent number did not concern or surprise him, given the rate at which senior executives are retiring, and similar statistics from the last presidential transition. Senior executives are “professionals who know how to comport themselves,” Blair said. “And they have gone through department and agency head transitions, which can be just as much of an organizational-changing event as a presidential transition.”

In fact, while the first 100 days of a new administration often are viewed as the most critical, presidential transitions actually last much longer; mini-transitions are happening pretty much constantly as appointees turn over throughout presidential terms. It can take several months, even years, to fill many political jobs below the Cabinet secretary and agency head level. There are roughly 4,000 appointee jobs; about 1,000 of those require Senate confirmation.

Robert Corsi Jr., a recently-retired senior executive who spent 18 years in the SES at the Air Force, said the 68 percent number was important, but the more relevant data point relates to the overall tenure of the average senior executive and political appointee. Corsi, who served as a senior executive during the Clinton, Bush and Obama transitions, estimated that most senior executives are in the corps between 10 and 12 years, while most political appointees serve roughly two to three years. In other words, even if a senior executive hasn’t been through multiple presidential transitions, they still have a wealth of experience in terms of helping new appointees navigate the federal government.

OPM this past spring released an exit survey of 230 senior executives from 21 different agencies, conducted between August 2014 and July 2015. Forty-three percent of respondents said they had been in the SES anywhere from one to five years; 42 percent had been in the SES anywhere from six to 20 years. Forty-two percent surveyed indicated their age as 60 or older.

Corsi, who retired in October as assistant deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services at the Air Force, said that the “biggest thing about this newest administration coming in, they are picking a lot of outsiders.” The mechanics, rules and laws of government -- what you can and cannot do -- will be “a rude awakening” for those not familiar with the ways of Washington, said Corsi. “There are more challenges [related to the transition], the more outsiders you bring in that aren’t exposed to government dynamics.” Corsi referred to that first 100 days as the “surge” of the entire transition, but noted that there is always a personnel ebb and flow during an administration. At DoD, in particular, “we have general officer leadership turnover all the time.”

Still, recruiting and retaining senior executives has been a challenge for at least the last two administrations. President Obama in 2015 issued an executive order on strengthening the SES, and part of the administration’s efforts to improve the corps have focused on those two R’s. The 2016 exit survey found that of 162 executives who were retiring or resigning voluntarily, 56 percent said they would be working for pay after they left government, or intended to find another paying job. Respondents also “exhibited less pride for their home agencies and the Senior Executive Service” than in previous surveys, according to the report. Seventy-two percent said that no effort was made to encourage them to stay in government. Shih said the data indicated that agencies “have a good opportunity to influence whether their executives are leaving or staying.” Twenty-nine percent said that verbal encouragement to stay could have changed their decision to leave.

One of the major responsibilities of career SES is to ensure the long-term continuity of the federal government through transition, said Shih. “So if we appoint the right leaders, these are going to be people who care about taking care of other people, empowering them, engaging them, removing obstacles and helping them to succeed. And if we focus on that, that leadership aspect, then people will be successful.”

As for the Obama-to-Trump transition and the beginning of the new administration, “I don’t know what challenges are going to come up,” Shih said. “There’s likely to be great change, there’s been a lot of talk about reform of civil service. We’re just going to have to be positioned to support that, and navigate it as it comes.”

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