Pentagon opens high-level jobs to civilian senior execs

Under a new initiative, the Defense Department is opening leadership positions that traditionally have been filled by generals and admirals to career civilian executives. As a result, about 200 members of the department's Senior Executive Service could move into positions formerly reserved for uniformed service members managing logistics, acquisition, intelligence and other noncombat operations.

An Oct. 25 directive, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, created a "corps of key SES positions that require an enterprise perspective." The directive defines these as career SES positions that the Defense secretary determines to be "the most influential and critical" in the department.

Under the initiative, which is scheduled to begin early next year, a new Executive Advisory Board, made up of career executives, will determine which positions will be filled by civilians and help identify leaders from the department's cadre of 1,500 SES members to fill them.

Some of the military services, such as the Air Force, have been more proactive than others in empowering civilian senior executives. The new directive is intended to establish more consistency across the Pentagon in SES career management.

One motivation is the heightened demand for senior officers because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of positions customarily filled by general officers can be freed up so those officers can fill combat assignments, said Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman.

He called the initiative a "maturation" of the Pentagon's SES program, which was created in 1979. The positions will be the military equivalent of three-star flag officers, and Melnyk said the board will look for executives who have had joint military service assignments and a wide breadth of experience -- some of it overseas.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executive Association, welcomed the initiative. She said that in part it reflected an effort to address issues related to the implementation of a new compensation system for SES members in 2004. Before that time, career executives were divided into six ranks, with varying pay levels. The ranks showed where executives fit into the Pentagon hierarchy, Bonosaro said, and were "extremely important" in the working relationships between career civilians and military officers.

She said executives she had heard from were pleased that the new policy clarifies how the civilian executive corps will be managed and that members will now be eligible for more leadership positions. Career executives are not in public service for the money, Bonosaro said, so greater responsibility is an important recognition of their service.

She said a potential concern is that the policy creates a three-tier structure for executives, adopted as a surrogate for military ranks, that determines pay and management responsibilities. What has not been made clear is how executives will be promoted from one tier to another. There is a danger of "pay compression" within the tiers, she said, as career executives reach the top of a rank and "bump up against the ceiling."

Another potential concern is a provision that executives "must sign an agreement for reassignment within and outside the geographical area prior to occupying positions." Bonosaro said executives could potentially be fired and lose their retirement benefits if they refuse a new posting. The association's general counsel is looking into the legality of the provision.

She also noted that a substantial number of retired flag officers are being appointed to SES positions at Defense. "If the proclivity is to turn to the retired military to accomplish this," she warned, "it will certainly defeat any notion of opening up broader opportunities for the career SES -- the vast majority of whom come up through the ranks."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec