Executives Association Wants to Fill in the Gaps in Federal Training and Development

Group hopes that efforts to boost professional development for agency leaders will eventually be adopted by agencies.

For years, stakeholder organizations and good government groups have decried the lack of sufficient training for managers and executives at federal agencies. Now an association for agency executives is taking matters into its own hands.

The Senior Executives Association is developing a number of training courses for members of the Senior Executive Service and prospective applicants to the federal government’s cadre of career leaders. The organization is developing a series of courses, in conjunction with GradSchoolUSA, to train executives on both general leadership concepts and specific issues like cybersecurity and risk management, and it is developing a “holistic” framework to support senior executives throughout their career.

“We’re getting ready to launch Public Service Leadership as a profession, which will take a holistic look at how you develop a leadership profession in the federal government,” SEA President Bill Valdez said. “Think about it this way: The American Bar Association trains and promotes lawyers. The American Medical Association promotes doctors, and the Project Management Institute promotes project managers. But there’s nothing out there that promotes leadership in the federal government.”

Valdez said that the plan is still relatively early in development, and SEA is aiming to launch it in early 2019. But as early as late 2018, SEA and GradSchoolUSA could roll out their training courses, which would be available to executives and federal employees on the upper levels of the General Schedule for a fee. That program would offer training for leaders at several points in their career trajectory.

“We’ve identified courses on what we’re calling SES 101, 201 and 301,” Valdez said. “ SES 101 will be for emerging leaders, GS-11s to 14s, who are thinking about joining the SES but don’t know about it, so it’s about the reality of applying for SES and that sort of thing. 201 is for someone who knows they’re ready to become a leader, but how do you actually do that? How do you write [executive core qualifications], how do you interview, and those kinds of things.”

SES 301 would be designed for existing SES members and would provide professional development that is not adequately provided in federal agencies today, in the association's view.

“The attitude within the government right now is that if you become an SES member, you’re fully baked, and that’s just not the case,” Valdez said. “Study after study shows that you still have developmental needs, that circumstances change and so do policies and procedures. There are a host of emergent issues that people need to be trained on.”

Valdez hopes to distinguish SEA’s training programs from existing leadership programs at universities by  providing professional development that shows how to apply leadership concepts directly to participants’ day-to-day jobs.

“This is not a slam against those [existing] programs, but typically they’re taught by non-SES members,” he said. “So we’re bringing the voice of the SES, the realities of the SES, to these kinds of courses and situations, and thinking about what it really means to be a leader in the federal government . . . We’re not all teachers and instructors, but we have very good people within SEA who know how to articulate things in a classroom setting or through mentoring experiences, so we’re trying to bring that voice to these kinds of discussions.”

Valdez said he hopes that SEA’s efforts to fill a training void, along with a study of existing federal leadership training programs, will result in an opportunity to bolster professional development at federal agencies. The association, along with the Partnership for Public Service and the Volcker Alliance, last month released an SES Joint Policy Agenda outlining priorities in any civil service reform effort, which included a significant expansion in training, professional development and performance management for senior executives.

“When I’ve talked with [the Office of Management and Budget] and the Hill, OMB says, ‘It’s a zero sum game, and there’s only so much money to go around, so if you want to find money for leadership and professional development programs, you need to take it away from somewhere else,’” Valdez said. “And then Congress says, ‘Well, we’re willing to fund extra programs, but you have to prove to us that they work. We’re skeptical that the government will be able to develop excellent programs.’ . . . So we want to show why these programs work, and the results that they’ve been able to accumulate.”

Kristine Simmons, vice president of government affairs for the Partnership for Public Service, said she could not comment specifically on SEA’s efforts, but that any effort to supplement the patchwork of training programs currently offered by federal agencies would be a positive development.

“We’re pleased to see any effort to invest not only in the pipeline of talent in the SES and investing in the development of SES members so that they can continue to grow and contribute in exciting ways,” she said. “From my perspective, Congress needs to understand and appreciate the importance of employee training. Agencies are, by and large, under-resourced in this space, and it is not usually a priority for Congress when funding agencies to invest in professional development and training for agency staff.”