SES pay is broken, critics say

Senior Executives Association complains that promotion to SES has lost its luster

SEA offers legislative fix

The Senior Executives Association has proposed legislation to improve the Senior Executive Service (SES) pay system and increase its appeal to senior executives.

“We are hoping to identify [congressional] sponsors soon,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro said. “I don’t think any of the fixes we’re talking are radical, but at least they would deal with some of the glaring problems we’ve run into.”

The legislation would require:


  • Minimum, market-based adjustments to salaries for executives rated at the fully successful level or higher.

  • A guaranteed 5 percent increase in salary for executives moving from the General Schedule to SES.
  • An annual survey by the Merit Systems Protection Board that would track the experiences of senior executives with the performance-based pay system.
  • Full disclosure of data on how agencies’ SES members are rated and the range of salary adjustments they receive for each rating level.

  • Improvements in the way the Office of Personnel Management certifies agencies’ performance systems.


— Richard W. Walker

Career federal employees used to aspire to join the Senior Executive Service. A promotion into the SES ranks meant greater influence, more prestige and a higher salary — the highest paid to federal workers.

Now, however, some senior executives have found that attaining SES status is less attractive than it used to be, at least from a salary standpoint, said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents career federal executives.

“I regularly hear reports of talented, experienced GS-15s who have no interest in competing for a promotion to Senior Executive Service to earn salaries of $120,000,” which they consider too low for living in high-cost areas, Bonosaro told lawmakers at a recent House subcommittee hearing. A promotion earns senior executives long work hours and no locality or annual cos-tof- living pay adjustments, she added.

“At this point, there appears to be little incentive beyond prestige and the opportunity to make a greater contribution to government for moving from a GS position to one in the SES,” Bonosaro said. She added that SEA has heard stories of senior executives requesting to return to the GS pay system because of vagaries in performance-based pay. The government implemented that system in 2004 for the 6,800 employees in SES.

SES’ pay system “has resulted in a host of problems, ranging from lowered morale to a hastening of the retirement wave,” Bonosaro said. “Without a change that makes the SES system more predictable and therefore more attractive, there will remain a powerful disincentive for highly qualified employees to compete for SES positions.”

Some Democratic lawmakers appeared to agree with Bonosaro. Such disincentives are endemic to pay-for-performance systems that aren’t fair and credible, said Rep.

Danny Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s federal workforce subcommittee. Davis has also been critical of what he sees as a lack of diversity in the SES ranks.

One problem is that the gap between the earning potential of a senior executive and that of a GS employee has shrunk, Bonosaro said. The SES maximum pay for 2008 is $172,200 for agencies with an SES performance-appraisal system certified by the Office of Personnel Management. For agencies with an uncertified system, top pay is $158,500. For Step 10 GS employees, top pay is $124,010, not including locality pay, which can add more than $20,000.

In some cases, GS pay, which includes automatic increases, overlaps SES pay, further reducing incentives to move up. “A GS-15 looks at everything and says, ‘My pay is overlapping the SES, and I know I’m going to get an annual increase. Tell me again what’s in it for me? I know [in the SES] I’m going to have longer hours and all this other grief,’” Bonosaro told Federal Computer Week. “The SES [pay system] is like having one foot on a banana peel.”

Under the SES system, salary adjustments of 2 percent in 2006 were below the GS increase for senior executives who are rated at the fully successful level, Bonosaro said. “A senior executive who receives a fully successful rating or higher should receive an increase sufficient to keep pace with the rest of the civil service,” she said.

For its part, OPM continues to tinker with the SES pay system. In a recent status report on alternative personnel systems in the government, OPM officials said that SES “base pay increases are being awarded in higher amounts and greater proportions to higher-performing executives.”

However, SEA officials said Congress should take a hard look at the SES system, and they have proposed legislation to fix it.

“This system is not attractive and will continue to dissuade many of the best employees from aspiring to the highest ranks of the career civil service,& mp; dquo; Bonosaro said.  

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