Lawmakers continued their assault on senior federal executives at a hearing Friday, calling for tighter oversight and increased discipline for agencies’ top managers.
Members of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee panel with jurisdiction over the federal workforce repeatedly pointed to the high number of Senior Executive Service employees who receive positive performance reviews and the corresponding bonuses as problematic. They praised efforts to make it easier to fire senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department amid allegations some leaders falsified patient data. The lawmakers also took aim at roadblocks preventing agencies from removing poorly performing and malfeasant managers.
Witnesses testifying before the subcommittee, including an official from the Office of Personnel Management, a top human resources representative from VA and the president of an SES advocacy group, said agencies already have the authority to terminate senior executives and those executives already have very little recourse. Still, they acknowledged Congress and agencies could take steps to improve accountability.
Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., the subcommittee’s ranking member and a supporter of the VA Management Accountability Act, which strips senior executives of options for recourse when facing a negative personnel action, said Congress must protect due process rights to ensure the civil service is not replaced by a system of political patronage. He added, however, the SES structure needed “major reforms.”
Lynch said he plans to introduce legislation that would allow VA to take back bonuses it has paid to employees proven to have manipulated health records and to retroactively lower performance ratings. A VA official said the agency does not currently have the authority to revoke a bonus that’s been paid, though former department Secretary Eric Shinseki did exactly that in May. A bipartisan pair of senators introduced a similar bill last week.
Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, agreed with Lynch on the need to reform SES policy to create more transparency and efficiency.
“The success of the Senior Executive Service depends on such reform,” Bonosaro said. While she cautioned against oversimplifying the hiring process and putting blanket restrictions on performance awards, she said SEA supports hiring more applicants who complete a “candidate development program,” providing locality pay adjustments for SES employees and ensuring that individuals who move from General Schedule 15 positions to the SES receive at least a 5 percent pay increase.
Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., took issue with the proposals, saying federal employees should accept promotions out of commitment to the mission and the opportunity to lead, rather than money.
With public servants, “there is a problem that goes into attitude as well,” Walberg said.
Walberg and subcommittee Chairman Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, questioned how it was possible that no VA senior executive received “unsatisfactory” or “minimally satisfactory” performance grades in the last five years, according to the agency’s own statistics. He asked the witnesses whether they thought that was plausible. A single unsatisfactory rating for a senior executive requires an agency to transfer, demote or terminate the employee.
Sam Retherford, VA’s principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Human Resources and Administration, said VA gave out fewer top performance ratings than other agencies. In fiscal 2013, 19 percent of VA SESers received “fully successful” ratings, 57 percent received “exceeds fully successful” scores and 21 percent were rated “outstanding.” Retherford said he did not believe the bonuses were to blame for the agency’s current scandal, noting the average performance award paid to VA senior executives dropped to $9,000 last year, or just 5.5 percent of base salaries.
He added VA must do a better job capturing data about SES employees fired during their probationary period, which would have shown six employees last year receiving unsatisfactory scores.
Stephen Shih, a top OPM official for employee development, said the performance awards are necessary to maintain a top-level workforce.
Every piece of SES statute is “intended to foster, support and enable the recruitment and retention of senior executives,” Shih said. He added, “civil service protections . . . make federal government an attractive place to work.”
In addition to the firing bill, Congress is considering several measures to trim or cut bonuses for VA employees. The department has already announced no Veterans Health Administration senior executives will receive performance awards this year.