New Initiative Aims to Cultivate Next Generation of Federal Executives

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., encouraged collaboration between federal employees and Congress and noted she is working on civil service reform legislation with her Republican counterpart. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., encouraged collaboration between federal employees and Congress and noted she is working on civil service reform legislation with her Republican counterpart. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

A professional association on Thursday announced a new initiative aimed at strengthening the Senior Executive Service through cultivating federal employees with leadership potential starting earlier in their careers.

The Senior Executives Association’s “leadership pipeline” effort will identify promising young government employees and connect them with mentors and leadership training programs and certifications.

“If you have a GS-9 [level employee] with obvious leadership potential, we need to tap into that, and we need to do it at the earliest part of their career,” SEA President Bill Valdez said.

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SEA traditionally represents SES employees, but Valdez said the group has opened its membership to upper-level general schedule workers, provided they are nominated and supported by an active SEA member.

The group is also setting up partnerships with a variety of leadership programs across the country, including at American University and Harvard University. Valdez said he is working on a collaboration with the University of Texas Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

“We’re looking at how to form leadership cohorts in Texas, for instance,” Valdez said. “We have a huge number of feds there, but they have no access to the [Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government] or American University’s program. They’re all along the East Coast or the West Coast.”

SEA will work out the details of the pipeline program, from instruction and mentoring to certification, over the next six months to a year, Valdez said.

The end goal is to have a robust group of senior government leaders who can lend their expertise and opinions to numerous public policy discussions.

“In the 40 years since [the passage of the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which established the SES], something’s happened,” Valdez said. “The core of senior leaders has become technocrats and super-managers. We hear people complain that they feel constrained in silos, that they’re so limited within their agency role, but they would love to get out and be enterprise thinkers. … We have a vital national resource here, and it’s called the leaders in the federal government, and we have to make better use of it and make sure they’re engaged in the important policy debates in our country.”

The leadership pipeline initiative is part of a broader SEA strategy to better support federal executives. The group is also backing civil service reform.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., encouraged SEA’s new effort, noting her own time in the federal bureaucracy as an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency and encouraging collaboration between employees and Congress. Heitkamp and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., have begun work examining the issue of civil service reform, although Heitkamp did not offer a timeframe for when they would have a formal proposal ready for introduction.

“If we want to assist the federal workforce in doing their job, we have to listen to the federal workforce,” Heitkamp said. “A lot of people want to do things to you. But Sen. Lankford and I want to do things with you.”

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