Obama cautioned in a speech last December that pay raises would not likely be part of his changes to the SES.

Obama cautioned in a speech last December that pay raises would not likely be part of his changes to the SES. Evan Vucci/AP

Expect More Rotations But No Major Pay Reforms in Obama’s SES Executive Order

Federal managers group has major issues with draft reform proposals.

Senior executives at federal agencies could soon see a small pay raise and be asked to take more rotational assignments, according to a draft executive order to reform the top ranks of the civil service, though advocates for the executives expressed concern the proposed changes did not include more financial incentives.

The release of the draft order, first reported by The Washington Post and so far circulated by the Obama administration only internally to agencies, comes after nearly a year of meetings with members of the Senior Executive Service and other stakeholders to develop reform proposals. President Obama announced the launch of the Office of Management and Budget-led advisory group in a speech to top managers late last year. The panel submitted its final recommendations earlier in 2015, which OMB fined tuned and included -- to varying degrees -- in the draft. The final executive order is expected in December after the administration hears comments from agencies and outside groups.  

Obama encouraged the advisory group to come up with “bold” and “robust” ideas, though they largely represent a retread and stronger enforcement of long-floated ideas. The pay provision of the draft order, as described in a summary provided by the Senior Executives Association, would require that agencies -- over time and as feasible -- assure SES employees’ base pay equals at least that of General Schedule-15 workers. The administration declined in the draft to raise the cap on SES performance pay, which in statute can go as high as 10 percent of agency spending on SES base pay but has been capped well beneath that figure since 2011.

Aside from the “very weak gesture” of matching SES pay to that of their subordinates, SEA interim President Tim Dirks said, the draft was “conspicuously” without “any financial incentives.”

“Notwithstanding some of the other measures that we think go in the right direction,” Dirks said, “it’s not going to have staying power unless it includes some meaningful incentives that attract and retain people.” He added the draft was “silent” on providing more non-monetary recognition for good performance.

“When agencies recognize their highest performers publicly,” SEA wrote, “it sends a positive signal to the entire workforce as well as the American public about the amazing work the federal government and its employees perform each and every day.” That failure makes the SES less attractive, the group said.

Obama cautioned in his speech last December that pay raises would not likely be part of his changes to the SES.

“My message here is simple,” Obama said at the beginning of his first speech to top federal civilians. “Thank you. I’d like to come here bearing raises and perks, but I can’t."

One measure included in the draft was a renewed emphasis on rotating top civil servants throughout federal offices and agencies. The draft would require 15 percent of senior executives to spend at least 120 days outside their normal duty by the end of fiscal 2017. Any agency with at least 20 SES employees would have to develop a rotational program. SEA said it generally supports rotational programs, but called the administration’s precise goals arbitrary.

“SEA opposes rotation for the sake of rotation nor establishing governmentwide quotas,” the group wrote in its summary of the proposals. Instead, SEA said, the administration should allow GS-14, 15 and SES workers to rotate, with the size of the program left to each agency’s discretion. The group also suggested cutting back on rotations during the upcoming presidential transition.

“As a career SESer,” Dirks said, “if you’re sent on a rotational assignment outside of your agency, you could be a little nervous about what you might come back to once the new administration settles in and starts making decisions on program priorities and managerial manpower to drive their programs.”

The draft executive order would transition the SES hiring process away from the essays currently required by applicants and instead rely more on résumés. It would encourage agencies to make additional changes. SEA said the current executive core qualifications narratives, which highlight applicants’ careers and competencies, should be kept in the process. The group also supported the draft’s call for better succession planning, but expressed concern that agencies are already skirting current requirements in that area.

Once new SESers are hired, the order would require a full implementation of a new senior executive onboarding program created last year but only in place at some agencies. The managers would participate in at least one “developmental activity” annually, and receive a “leadership assessment” every three years. The means for funding those and other reforms in the draft order are not made clear, SEA said.

“Creating a series of unfunded mandates will compound these challenges and mitigate success,” the group wrote. “If these are truly important, funding for them needs to be addressed in the administration’s budget requests to Congress and backed up by agency reallocation and prioritization of resources to these activities.”

The order would create a new subcommittee on the President’s Management Council tasked with implementing the reforms. Some of the changes, such as the rotational program, would go into place immediately, while all of the reforms would take place within three years. SEA suggested that because the management council is not codified and could be scrapped at any time, the Office of Personnel Management instead lead implementation efforts.

An OMB spokesman would not comment on the specifics of the draft, saying only that the administration is continuing ongoing efforts to improve federal agencies’ top ranks.

“The president is committed to attracting and retaining the best talent to the federal workforce and fostering a culture of excellence,” the spokesman said. “As part of the President’s Management Agenda, the administration has been working on a series of initiatives to provide new opportunities for aspiring senior federal leaders to develop the skills needed to better serve the American public.”

SEA has sent a letter to OMB to voice its complaints, noting it was standing by to offer input for the final order. While SEA was involved in the initial advisory group, Dirks said it was not afforded an opportunity to review the draft before it was distributed to agencies. He said in an era with insufficient pay and bonuses, spiking politicization at agencies, slashed recognition of good performance, growing attacks from Congress, waning support from the administration and lacking work-life balance, the order was “notably inadequate.” 

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