President Obama has canceled a longstanding, annual program that rewards federal managers for distinguished service, according to administration officials.
A group representing federal senior executives has voiced doubts about the legality of the move, while the Office of Personnel Management said it would collect nominee submissions anyway.
The White House decision -- first reported in The Wall Street Journal -- comes as agencies have tightened their budgets to avoid or limit employee furloughs and other impacts of cuts due to sequestration. The presidential rank awards are typically presented once each year to high-grade federal employees across many agencies. In April, 124 federal executives were honored for their service in 2012 -- down from 278 award winners in 2005.
"The president is committed to recognizing excellence," an administration official said. "However, in light of the reduced budgetary resources, expending funds on employee performance awards at this time would in many circumstances not be the most effective way to protect agency mission to the extent practicable."
The White House is “focused on finding means to acknowledge excellence in non-monetary ways,” the official said.
The president has honored top feds with rank awards every year since 1978 and provides a one-time bonus of between 20 percent and 35 percent of the employee’s salary. Agencies must first nominate candidates for the awards to the Office of Personnel Management before the White House ultimately selects the winners.
OPM originally sent out a request to agencies for rank award nominees in May. On Tuesday, OPM issued a new memo to extend the deadline for submissions, while acknowledging “the current sequester and resulting budgetary constraints may severely impact the feasibility of issuance of Presidential Rank Awards in FY 2013.”
An OPM spokesperson told Government Executive the agency will continue to collect nominees for the awards and pass them along to the White House as scheduled.
Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said President Obama may be violating federal law by canceling the awards.
“SEA believes that the awards are required by statute,” Bonosaro told Government Executive.
“Further, while we understand the concern for both budget and optics during the sequester, it seems rather short sighted to sacrifice a program designed to encourage and reward excellence in government -- especially one which is completely justified given both the accomplishments of the awardees and the savings they secure for government,” she said. “At such a challenging time, we need the kind of executives exemplified by the Presidential Rank Awards, and we cannot afford yet another action which chips away at the few remaining attractors for service in the career executive corps.”
This story has been updated with SEA and OPM responses.