Exec association leader skeptical on SES overhaul


The Senior Executives Association wants the Clinton Administration to slow down its drive to change the way the federal government's top career civil servants are paid and how their performance is measured.

Carol Bonosaro, SEA president, said Thursday that the Office of Personnel Management has not explained why proposed changes to the Senior Executive Service are necessary.

"Does it need to be entirely overhauled? We hadn't thought so. But we're open to being convinced," Bonosaro told GovExec.com. "Show us the evidence that the problems are so massive that the SES needs systemic change."

On Monday, OPM announced a "Framework for Improving the Senior Executive Service," which would include the most sweeping changes to the SES since the service was created in 1979. OPM is accepting comments on the proposed framework, which the agency emphasizes is a "working draft," from executives and other interested groups.

Under one of the framework's proposals, any executive whose duties do not include managing a program or a staff would be moved into a new Senior Professional Service, which would also include high-ranking lawyers, scientists and other professionals now classified under the senior level and senior scientific/professional services. That change could cut the approximately 8,000-member SES in half, OPM estimates.

"The assumption here seems to be that if we just remove the non-managers, somehow or the other, the SES is going to work better," Bonosaro said. "I don't know that that's true. OPM may discover that they're throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Another proposed change would require agencies to set up three-year performance agreements with executives, emphasizing program results. The OPM framework says that after three years, agencies would "determine whether the executive should be continued in current position, reassigned, or removed."

"That proposal has nothing in it for the executive. Where is the executive left?" Bonosaro said.

Another OPM proposal would allow agencies to offer executives bonuses of up to 30 percent of base pay. Bonuses are currently capped at 20 percent of base pay.

The OPM framework suggests encouraging executives to move around among agencies and programs more frequently by offering mobility bonuses and by requiring executives to have experience in more than one agency or program to get paid at the top three levels of the executive schedule. Bonosaro said executives do need to move around more, but the problem is political appointees' unwillingness to promote mobility. The OPM suggestion does not address the real problem, Bonosaro said.

One proposal Bonosaro said she agreed with was a suggestion to change the Presidential Rank Awards from fixed-dollar amounts to percentage-of-base-pay bonuses. The rank awards honor high-achieving executives with $20,000 for distinguished achievement and $10,000 for meritorious achievement.

"What $10,000 and $20,000 was worth in 1978 is not what it is worth today," Bonosaro noted.

Office of Personnel Management Director Janice Lachance defended the proposed SES changes last week.

"These modifications would reinforce the original Civil Service Reform Act concept of a senior executive corps," Lachance said. "They would emphasize the requirement for all SES members to possess broad executive qualifications and maintain high ethical standards."

The President's Management Council has set up a working group to discuss OPM's proposals. The Senior Executives Association will be meeting with that group next week to provide its input, Bonosaro said.

"It's a frustrating group of proposals to read," Bonosaro said. "It's time to slow this down."

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