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Why Isn't the White House Touting Its Top Senior Executives?

The Obama administration has been somewhat mum on the Presidential Rank Award winners, probably because of the bonuses.

The number of senior executives receiving the nation’s highest award for civil service has continued to shrink over the past few years -- and so does the publicity from the White House touting the winners.

There’s a perception among some senior executives and the association representing them that the Obama White House has pressured federal agencies to avoid drawing attention to the annual winners of the Presidential Rank Awards -- and the hefty bonuses they receive -- because of the sensitive fiscal and political climate.

“There’s a concern that [the administration] might -- this is my impression -- that they would be in a position of having to defend why these people received such an enormous [amount] of money,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, during a recent interview with Government Executive. “And of course, I think [the award winners] are very easy to defend given the amount of money that they save, and the kind of accomplishments that are cited in their nominations.”

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 nominations, who are then vetted by the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Investigative Services. FIS performs background checks on federal employees and contractors.

One of the 2014 Distinguished Rank winners (David J. Wineland from the Commerce Department) won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Each year, OPM publishes guidance on the Presidential Rank Awards for agencies, including the nomination deadlines, eligibility, criteria and the evaluation process. The fiscal 2015 guidance, published in December 2014, contains two paragraphs on Page 12 regarding recognizing award recipients. “Upon notification by OPM, agencies should immediately inform award recipients of their selection; however, agencies shall not make any public announcement or hold any ceremonies in honor of the award winners,” the guidance stated. “OPM will advise agencies if publicity is authorized.” The same language is in OPM’s fiscal 2014 guidance on the awards.  

Some, including Bonosaro, viewed that guidance as banning agencies from publicizing their winners. But OPM denied the White House or the Office of Management and Budget specifically instructed it to tell agencies not to advertise winners. An OPM spokesman said that “the president believes in the value of the Presidential Rank Award program,” but added that while the agency “joins the president in strongly supporting the recognition of some of our federal government’s best and brightest, we are also sensitive to the financial challenges faced by so many Americans in recent years, and consequently asked federal agencies to be judicious in conducing celebratory events or announcements that may appear insensitive to those who may be continuing to experience tough economic times.”

The Agriculture Department, General Services Administration, and Navy were among the agencies that mentioned their 2014 winners in press releases or blog posts. But other than the publicity generated by the annual spring black-tie event SEA hosts for the winners at the State Department, there’s not much mention of the honorees online or elsewhere. The Presidential Rank Awards page on OPM’s website offers a brief description of the program, and some relevant links. The latest list of finalists is from 2013. The 2014 winners apparently were mentioned during the president’s December 2014 meeting with senior executives – the first of his presidency.

Bonosaro said President Ronald Reagan used to present the awards in person in the 1980s. She described a brief ceremony, where winners received their pins, certificates, and a picture with the president, followed by a “punch and cookies” reception. “Someone said many years ago, ‘Gee, is that all there is?’ ” Bonosaro recounted. “So, that’s how we started the banquet, and when I think about it, people would be thrilled if that were all there is right now,” she added, referring to President Reagan’s personal appearance. 

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.

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. However, since the 2013 finalists did not receive awards, they were eligible for re-nomination in fiscal 2014, and several finalists and winners were repeat nominees.

Perhaps because of shrinking budgets and the spotlight on senior executive bonuses in recent years, particularly at the Veterans Affairs Department, the number of annual Presidential Rank Award winners has decreased over the last few years. Twenty-four civil servants received the 2014 Presidential Distinguished Rank Award compared to 46 recipients in 2012, the last year the prizes were handed out. There were 54 top winners in 2011, and 66 in 2010.

In fiscal 2014 there were 7,014 career senior executives in the federal government; the 2014 Distinguished Rank Award winners represented 0.34 percent of that total, while Meritorious Rank Award recipients composed 1.27 percent, according to statistics from SEA. The last time the percentage of Distinguished Rank Award winners was at 1 percent was 2009.

Bonosaro said the administration’s reluctance to tout the winners is a “lost opportunity,” given the public’s dismal view of government. “I mean, this is a chance to say, ‘Look at what your government has done for you.’ ”

The 2014 winners have saved the government more than $32 billion, according to SEA.

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