Senior Executive Service Is Meant to Be Mobile, Lawmaker Says

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has introduced legislation that would require senior executives at VA to be reassigned every five years. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has introduced legislation that would require senior executives at VA to be reassigned every five years. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

The head of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday defended his legislative proposal to reassign VA senior executives to new posts every five years and limit the number of bonuses the department gives out annually.

“Number one, when SES was first stood up, the whole idea was that people would not camp out in a particular position, that they would be able to spread their knowledge throughout the federal government, so this is nothing new, this is how it was first established,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., during a press conference at the department with VA Secretary Bob McDonald and other lawmakers. “Number two, I don’t think the American public would expect if somebody has manipulated records, done something nefarious or wrong and got the bonus while they were doing that, they should be rewarded for that.”

Miller was responding to a reporter’s question about whether his latest bill to ensure accountability at the VA could hurt the recruitment and retention of talented senior executives at the department. The legislation, also introduced in the Senate, would allow no more than 30 percent of VA’s senior executives to receive top performance ratings and qualify for bonuses. “Sure, there should be rewards for those who go above and beyond the call of duty,” Miller said. But he added that the department needs to have the authority to rescind bonuses and retirement benefits from senior career officials who do “something purposefully incorrect, not because they didn’t know what was right or wrong.” VA now can only take back a bonus if it was an administrative error. The department cannot deprive senior executives of their property, including earned retirement benefits, unless those employees are convicted of treason or terrorism.

In addition, Miller’s bill (H.R. 473) calls on the VA secretary to reassign once every five years, “each individual employed in a senior executive position to a position at a different location that does not include the supervision of the same personnel or programs.” The secretary could waive that requirement on an individual basis but would have to justify it to Congress.

A 2012 report from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service said senior executives’ lack of movement across government was hurting agencies, finding that 48 percent of SESers had stayed in the same job after ascending to the top career ranks. The Obama administration has launched two programs to improve and diversify the Senior Executive Service across government, including one that grooms top SES recruits for the corps by giving them rotational assignments. “The program is a step towards fulfilling the vision of the Senior Executive Service and developing a cadre of senior civil servants with critical skill sets such as leading change, building coalitions, working across government to solve problems, and performance management,” said the budget proposal in the section “Strengthening the Federal Workforce.”

Still, the Senior Executives Association has expressed concerns over the possibility that reassignments could become political, or impractical, given the specific skills needed for many jobs throughout the VA.

McDonald on Tuesday said he and Miller, along with Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and the respective Democratic ranking members of the panels, Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, discussed accountability and the department’s latest SES ratings at breakfast together that morning. “I laid out for them the ranking that we did, who was getting what bonuses and why, and I think they were comfortable with the accountability that we’re using within VA,” McDonald said. The former Proctor and Gamble CEO, who has not endorsed H.R. 473, tread carefully on the topic of Miller’s legislation during the joint briefing. “I think in general we would say that in VA we want to be held accountable, that’s part of our values. I think what we would also say is that we don’t want to be treated any differently than any other part of government.”

The lawmakers and McDonald held a town hall with VA employees across the country after their breakfast and before the press briefing. They had a “frank, honest and compelling” discussion with employees, according to Isakson, that ranged from “compensation to accountability to veterans’ choice and what we’re doing to make their job better and what they need to do to do a better job.” Reporters were not invited to cover the town hall, which was webcast from Washington. The VA did not immediately respond to a request for a transcript of the event.

Isakson, who became chairman of the VA panel in January, said he wants to have periodic town halls with employees to learn from them. “We’re always sending out edicts, we ask the agencies to come to us, and go to a five-minute show and tell in the Senate or the House,” the Republican said. “And then we all go away and never connect. So we decided to bring the Congress to the VA. We wanted the employees to know that we cared about them.”

Lawmakers during the briefing emphasized their responsibility as VA overseers, but also as collaborators with the administration, vets, and the department. Isakson praised McDonald for his leadership of the department since the wait times scandal broke last year, and said there are plenty of success stories coming out of the department that deserve to be told as well.

Miller acknowledged that 2014 “was a difficult year for the department” with a lot of “negative press.” But he sought Tuesday to reassure employees that Congress isn’t launching an attack on them. “We were here to talk about some of the good things that are going on, to assure the employees in the Department of Veterans Affairs that nobody on Capitol Hill is trying to tear down, brick-by-brick, this agency that serves so many veterans across this country.”

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