Avoiding the Senior Executive Service

empty conference room

Top government executives say the SES is being decimated by morale problems and a reluctance of talented managers to join their ranks.

When the Senior Executive Service was created in 1978 to replace the GS "supergrades," the vision was all-encompassing. The SES, as designed by the Civil Service Reform Act, would deploy a force of senior executives across government, where their management and subject-matter expertise would be put to use solving problems and creating a more efficient and better trained workforce.

The SES would be something to which all highly motivated and highly talented federal employees could aspire.

Three and a half decades later, members of the Senior Executive Service say that vision has been turned on its head.

Senior executives now comprise approximately 1 percent of the federal workforce. Between 2008 and 2011, those executives made $340 million in cash bonuses, according to a memo put out last year by Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. But the Senior Executive Association, the professional association of current and retired SES members, says federal employees are either reluctant to enter SES positions or are leaving because of low pay and a flawed performance-based awards system.

Federal senior executive compensation has been in the spotlight since the House voted May 1 to suspend bonuses to executives at the Veterans Affairs Department, a move followed by the release of an SEA report alleging that morale issues are rampant among executives.

Two weeks after the House vote, the Office of Personnel Management announced the revamp of the Presidential Rank Awards for senior executives after a one-year hiatus.

SESers received an average bonus of approximately 7 percent of their salary in 2012, according to the Department of Commerce, the latest year for which complete figures are available. The average SES salary was $166,000, according to Office of Personnel Management, making the average bonus about $10,900.

'Rather disheartening'

SEA President Carol Bonosaro told a Senate subcommittee May 6 that the government is on the verge of, if not currently witnessing, a mass exodus of executives.

According to OPM figures, the ranks of the Senior Executive Service have actually grown in recent years, which doesn't necessarily contradict Bonosaro's conention, but could allay any fears that the government is about to be denuded of top executive talent. There were some 8,000 SES personnel in 2012, including political appointees and career employees, up from 7,700 in 2008.

According to Bonosaro, however, a storm is coming.

"With greater frequency, high-performing senior executives themselves are choosing to retire or seek employment in the private sector rather than continue in a system they believe does not support or reward their efforts -- and in some cases seems to denigrate their value as critical frontline leaders of the most important and impactful federal programs that affect all Americans," Bonosaro said in her prepared testimony.

Money has a lot to do with it.

We have a lot anecdotal evidence to the effect that a lot of the most highly talented people ... are choosing not to pursue SES positions.

Almost a quarter of GS-15 employees make more than their SES counterparts, before bonuses, Bonosaro testified.

"This pay compression is not only resulting in sort of a perverse salary administration problem, but it's also impacting morale among SESers and contributing to a much higher percentage of SESers retiring in recent years," said Tim Dirks, director of member and agency liaison at the SEA.

According to a July 2013 report by the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company, nearly two thirds of executives will be retirement-eligible within the next five years. That's part of a wider trend; retirements are up across the board as the baby boomer cohort grows older. And, of course, senior executives in the private sector come and go regularly for a multitude of reasons, including job dissatisfaction and failure to perform.

But few middle managers in the private sector are likely turning down chances to enter the executive suite, and Dirks said that is what is happening in government, where GS-14 and GS-15 employees who are on the cusp of SES are choosing to stay out of senior executive roles.

"We have a lot anecdotal evidence to the effect that a lot of the most highly talented people ... are choosing not to pursue SES positions because of the pay compression issues and the lack of potential rewards for outstanding performance," Dirks said.

The SEA report includes anonymous quotes from frustrated SESers.

"I have received either Outstanding or Exceeded Expectations during my 7 year SES tenure; never had a pay raise and no bonuses for the last 3 years," wrote one executive. Another wrote, "No feedback at all. Rather disheartening considering high expectations for results and ongoing scrutiny and criticism against SES."

'An in-depth look'

While McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has led a rhetorical charge in the Senate to rein in bonuses, the Republican-led House has actually passed a bill.

An amendment attached to a veteran's tuition bill would eliminate SES bonuses at the VA for five years. The amendment is the legislative response to dissatisfaction with the troubled department's progress in clearing backlogs and allegations of preventable deaths at VA facilities.

The department has also been less than responsive to requests from Congress to provide information about data breaches and other problems.

"So far, VA leaders have refused, and until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable – rather than rewarding them – for mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus," Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said in January.

Performance bonuses have not been a rare thing at VA. Like the children of Lake Wobegon, most of the members of the SES at the department are apparently above average. More than three-quarters of VA senior executives received a bonus in 2010, according to OPM. The average salary for VA SESers was $165,000, with an average award of $15,000. Across the federal government in 2010, SESers were paid $167,000 on average, with a $13,000 average bonus.

Jennifer Mattingley, SEA's legislative director, said VA uses OPM's government-wide performance appraisal process, an annual evaluation that measures SESers on leadership, business acumen and building coalitions.

OPM's system and VA's evaluation hold executives to a rigorous standard and the recent spotlight on VA does not necessarily reflect a lack of accountability, she said.

Rather than painting with a broad brush, Mattingly stressed, each case needs to be looked at individually, with a specific accounting of whether an award is justified. Most critics in Congress and the media are not doing that, she suggested -- at the VA or SES-wide.

"We need to be careful when we start throwing around the word accountability, because some of what we've seen in the media deserves at least an in-depth look at each executive and their performance," Mattingley said.


Reader comments

Mon, Jun 16, 2014 Kelly Washington, DC

I agree with Doug and seriously, the juice isn't worth the squeeze. I am a GS-15/Step-7. I get bonus every year. I actually make more money than my Boss with or without his bonuses. Each week, he works about 10 hours more than I do. During off hours, he hovers over the Gov IPhone like a teenage girl. He is two years younger than I (43), but looks like he’s 50. He lives 1.5 hours away from the job and never sees his kids or trophy-wife. Also, our secretaries are the same GS-level, but she [his] spends the majority of her day on the phone or coordinating meetings/events. Her title should be “Executive Scheduler”. The government “owns” their SESs and all of my peers agree that the rewards do not outweigh the efforts. Nonetheless, if you want to impress a novice with a title, become a SES. If you want to impress other Gov workers, become a GS-15.

Tue, Jun 10, 2014 Harvey DC

What about the bad apples in the SES ranks? Seems that nothing can be done to get rid of these people. The personnel handbook is 1/2" thick with ways to fire a regular fed and barely 4 lines on how to fire SES.

Tue, Jun 3, 2014

Our SES employees in my agency don't want to do anything to make things better. The bottom line is, the government is totally messed up and until we get some real leadership (not just managers), nothing will ever change.

Tue, Jun 3, 2014 HL

@ DC Fed: your comment, "but remember that these are still Government employees, and no one joins the Federal Government as a civil servant expecting to get rich." - is exactly my point. Pay folks more money and the govt will attract better talent. It's noble to state that being a federal employee somehow suppresses the human need to earn more money, but a MUCH better system is to pay folks more, especially at the professional levels. If one simply wants to better the country as their reason to take the heat, then having more money will not influence them. But, if a young person who needs to earn more to better the lives of his/her family, more pay in a profession would actually attract, not repel them. Of course if they're the attention grabbing and power hungry type, the govt is the right place for them. Not a slam, but the prestige (at least in the past) of working for the federal government was very compelling. The prestige part is now history. Now we need to pay folks more and there will be ample talent coming forward to crowd out the "retire in place" folks. BTW, the health benefit in retirement is not near the boon it used to be. You still have to pay a significant portion of your monthly annuity (under FERS) to get it. Yes it is subsidized, but you have to be aware that Congress and the President are looking into eliminating that subsidy for existing and future retirees (the old bait and switch). They have to do something, our nation's money is all spent. Now if the SES individual is under the old CSRS retirement system, they've already won the taxpayer funded lottery and probably could retire today regardless of their age. Just get to the "high 3" and punch out with a truly golden parachute. If an SES is under FERS, however I hope the health care is not the main reason they put up with the pay freezes all these years. I would rather see a system where there are far fewer SES'ers and more middle ranking feds. It is getting to the point in government where there are too many chiefs and not enough working troops to do the work. The federal government is WAY too top heavy and many indeed are attention grabbing people at the SES level. I mean SES is the Admiral/General level. It ought to be very hard to get there.

Mon, Jun 2, 2014 DC Fed

Interesting comments from other readers range from accepting these facts about SES employees, to being very cynical about how we spend Federal money in general and the long term direction of US Government spending. As a GS-15, who has seen many SES employees come and go, I also think the conclusions of this article are generally correct. I'm not sure how SES employees are differentiated from GS-15s at other agencies, but from what I've seen in my home agency, a capable GS-15 can accomplish just as much or more than an SES. This is seemingly in spite of the bonus system, and yes, it is because that GS-15 employee probably wants to be an SES before they retire. The comments about some SES employees being attention grabbing opportunists is aggravating to me, since this is not how it works in my agency. If you really want to see some attention grabbing opportunists, try spending some time working for one of the "beltway bandit" consulting firms. From what I've seen, many SES employees who are not involved in direct mission roles (e.g., a senior agent in the field) have a wide variety of experience, sometimes with decades in the private sector being joining the public service. Some of this experience may seem irrelevant to the career feds who've spent the majority of their career at one agency, but diversity of experience is almost never a bad thing. Most of these more senior SES employees are not really driven by the bonuses or the Federal pay scale, but are very interested in the Federal health benfits that can be retained after retirement. Is it unfortunate that SES employees are not getting bonuses -- sure, I guess so -- but remember that these are still Government employees, and no one joins the Federal Government as a civil servant expecting to get rich. If you want to address some of the real problem employees in the Federal Government, let's talk about the small number of non-performers who knowingly acknowledge themselves as "retired in place".

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