Thirty-six senior executives received the government’s top award for excellence in civil service in 2016, according to information from the Office of Personnel Management.
The list of 2016 Presidential Rank Award winners, obtained by Government Executive, named 36 Distinguished Executive winners, the highest honor for career civil servants, and 102 Meritorious Rank recipients for 2016. The annual Presidential Rank Awards include Distinguished and Meritorious honors for both senior executives and senior professionals. OPM said the list of 138 winners only included those who agreed to public recognition. Three winners were not on the list that OPM provided to Government Executive.
In 2015, OPM listed 38 career officials from across government as Distinguished Executives. The number of top honorees has fluctuated over the past few years, in part because of shrinking budgets and the negative spotlight on senior executive bonuses. Twenty-four civil servants received the 2014 Presidential Distinguished Rank Award compared to 46 recipients in 2012. There were 54 top winners in 2011, and 66 in 2010.
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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 OPM’s Federal Investigative Services. FIS performs background checks on federal employees and contractors.
Federal employees who win a Presidential Rank Award can opt not to have their names publicly released as recipients because of personal privacy exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act. While most winners agree to public recognition, some are reluctant to do so because it is easy to figure out the amount of their Presidential Rank Award since it is based on publicly-available federal salaries. And there has been a perception among some senior executives and other observers that the administration in recent years has pressured federal agencies to avoid drawing attention to the annual winners of the nation’s highest award for civil service -- and the hefty bonuses they receive -- because of the sensitive fiscal and political climate.
The incoming Trump administration will decide what to do with the rank awards in 2017, and for the rest of his term. Steve Shih, OPM’s deputy associate director for the Senior Executive Service and performance management, said that current agency leaders who are familiar with the career SES have an opportunity to weigh in on the 2017 finalists – OPM called for nominations in November and the deadline is Jan. 6 – but ultimately the Trump administration will choose the winners.
The Senior Executives Association typically holds an annual spring black-tie event for winners at the State Department.
NASA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense boasted the most 2016 winners across the board, as they did in 2015. Other agencies with several winners included the Navy, Energy Department, Air Force, Army and the Health and Human Services Department.