Officials have acknowledged progress has been too slow.

Officials have acknowledged progress has been too slow. Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

The Senior Executive Service is becoming less white and male, but still lags behind the rest of the federal workforce

Lack of diversity in the government's top ranks has been an issue for decades.

The highest-ranked career federal employees are getting older and more diverse, a new analysis has found, though they remain disproportionately white and male compared to the larger civil service. 

While the Senior Executive Service has grown by 20% over the last 25 years, it has remained steadily at around 0.4% of the federal workforce. The employees are getting older, however, creating the potential for an upcoming wave of retirements. The data was compiled by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which said it was critical to have a better understanding of the trends within the SES due to the “vital part they play in ensuring the federal government achieves its mission.” 

“We found that although the SES has grown as the workforce has grown and has become more diverse over time, it still is not fully representative of the composition of the federal workforce as a whole,” the Partnership said. 

In 1998, just 20% of the SES was female. That figure has steadily grown over time and by 2022, reached 38%. That still lagged behind the federal workforce writ large, which is 44% female. Most of the growth took place in the late 1990s and 2000s and has slowed down in recent years. 

Just 16% of the SES identified as people of color in 2007, the first year such data is available. Last year, that had climbed to 25%. That still trailed the rate of the entire federal workforce, of which 39% identified as people of color. In 2011, members of minority groups represented just 18% of the SES, which the Obama administration at the time called “unacceptable.” 

A lack of diversity within the SES workforce has drawn criticism from lawmakers, auditors and advocacy groups for more than 20 years. In the intervening time, Congress has held hearings in which administration officials have acknowledged progress was too slow

Just 12% of the SES is Black, compared to 19% of the federal workforce. That marks slow progress from 20 years prior, when 9% of the SES was Black. The African American Federal Executive Association in 2020 launched a career development program with the goal of creating a pipeline for Black SES employees, though the rate has only just barely ticked up during the Biden administration.  

In 1998, just 12% of senior executives in federal government were at least 60 years old. By 2022, that had grown to 27%. As the cadre ages, the number of retirements has increased. More than 900 SES employees separated from federal service in 2022, a 30% growth since 2005. Nearly two-thirds of the senior executives on board in 2020 will be eligible to retire by 2025, the Partnership found. 

Hiring, meanwhile, has remained fairly stable. It peaked in 2011, when agencies brought on 245 new SES employees. That dipped to a low of just 100 in 2018, but has stabilized to around 200 per year. 

Program management is the most common occupation for senior executives. The number working in IT has grown in recent years, while the number working in physical sciences has dipped. 

Source: Partnership for Public Service

The SES was created in 1978 and the cadre of employees serve as the top career staffers at each agency, sitting just below political appointees and serving as intermediaries between presidential administrations and the rest of the rest of the civil service. They operate on a separate compensation system, earning a base salary and then the rest of their pay based on performance.