The number of senior executives receiving the nation’s highest award for civil service nearly doubled between 2014 and 2015, after a few years of belt-tightening by the Obama administration.
Forty-three top civil servants will be honored Thursday at a black-tie banquet sponsored by the Senior Executives Association at the State Department in Washington for receiving the 2015 Presidential Distinguished Rank Award. Their accomplishments, which saved the federal government more than $121 billion, range from safely and efficiently overseeing environmental cleanup projects at former nuclear weapons production facilities to quickly responding to the 2014 surge in illegal border crossings in the Southwest.
“These individuals represent the best of our government workforce,” said SEA Interim President Jason Briefel, in a statement. “Not only did they seek to fulfill their own responsibilities as agency leaders, but they sought to go above and beyond to find innovative solutions that wound up saving billions of taxpayer dollars.”
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Only 1 percent of the SES is eligible to receive the rank of Distinguished Executive and 5 percent of the corps is eligible to receive the rank of Meritorious Executive. Winners of either the Distinguished or Meritorious award cannot receive the same rank award more than once in five years.
Distinguished Rank honorees receive a monetary award equivalent to 35 percent of their annual basic pay, and Meritorious Rank recipients receive 20 percent of their rate of annual basic pay. Review boards composed of current and former public- and private-sector officials choose finalists among the nominees, who are then vetted by the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Investigative Services. FIS performs background checks on federal employees and contractors.
Shrinking budgets and the spotlight on senior executive bonuses in recent years, particularly at the Veterans Affairs Department, have largely been to blame for the smaller numbers -- and the lack of publicity from the White House. Twenty-four senior executives received distinguished rank awards in 2014, compared to 46 recipients in 2012. There were 54 top winners in 2011, and 66 in 2010. In May 2014, the White House reinstated the Presidential Rank Awards after canceling them in 2013 – the first time that has happened since the program was created in the late 1970s. The White House cited budget cuts and furloughs caused by sequestration and the need to belt-tighten across government as the reason for scrapping the awards that year, a move SEA denounced as a morale buster.
“Although this is my 30th banquet, I never cease to be amazed at the extraordinary accomplishments of these awardees,” said SEA President Emeritus Carol Bonosaro in a statement Thursday. “At the same time, however, I’m continuously disappointed with the lack of public acknowledgement given the rank awardees by administration after administration. It has been an endless cycle of lost opportunities to trumpet their accomplishments and to change the current narrative of government so often portrayed by Congress and the media,” Bonosaro said.
2015 Distinguished Rank winners Jack Craig Jr. and Thomas Homan both planned to attend Thursday evening’s event, which will feature a keynote address from James Clapper, director of national intelligence.
Craig, a nearly 30-year veteran of the Energy Department, is now manager of the department’s Savannah River Operations Office, overseeing an 11,000-person workforce and a complex environmental management site. A civil engineer by training, Craig credits his various jobs within the department over the years, including a stint at headquarters in Washington, with helping him learn new skills, as Energy moved from operating nuclear weapons facilities to managing environmental clean-ups post-Cold War.
That mobility also gave him the opportunity to understand different perspectives. “It’s really valuable to know from the headquarter’s point of view how they view work in the field, how they view whether or not the site is aligned with their priorities and mission, and so I think that helped reinforce to me the importance of the alignment part of our mission,” Craig said.
Homan is executive associate director of Enforcement and Removal Operations at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau. The 2015 winner, who has 32 years of experience in law enforcement, is being honored for successfully handling the surge of children and families from Central America at the Southwest border. He expanded detention capacities for those families in part by expediting the deportation of thousands of criminal aliens from the United States, freeing up space, and managing a workforce of nearly 8,000.
Listening to and engaging his “hardworking and dedicated” employees has contributed to his success as a senior executive, Homan said. “I don’t care if you are a GS-3 or an SES, you are equally important to this agency,” said the New York state native, who acknowledged that morale is down in the agency. He pointed out that while some people “get frustrated” with policies and priorities that change from administration to administration, he has concentrated on “executing the mission within the framework provided for me.” ICE policies might not be popular with everyone, but “you are enforcing the law enacted by Congress, that’s what we get appropriated for,” Homan noted.
OPM late last year listed thirty-eight top career officials from across government as 2015 Distinguished Executives, including Craig and Homan, and five other career leaders as Distinguished Senior Professionals, the highest honor within the annual Presidential Rank Awards. The annual spring SEA dinner honors those 43 top winners.
Overall, there are more than 100 winners of the 2015 Presidential Rank Awards (which includes Distinguished and Meritorious honors for both senior executives and professionals). OPM noted on its website that the list “was not comprehensive and only includes winners agreeing to public recognition as of Dec. 15, 2015.”
The Office of the Secretary of Defense and the NASA boasted the most 2015 winners across the board.