Does the SES have a future under Trump?

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The senior executive service has its flaws, but investing in the service -- by improving training programs, compensation and giving them more of a voice -- is the most effective path to reforming it, according to former feds.

"I don't think it's hyperbole to say the SES is at risk," Booz Allen Hamilton Vice President Ronald Sanders said at a March 17 National Academy of Public Administration event to release the book, "Building a 21st Century SES."

Sanders, a veteran of the Pentagon, IRS and the intelligence community and the editor of the book, said the SES' lagging pay, lack of diversity and difficulty in retaining quality employees "suggest this quiet crisis is getting louder."

Part of the crisis SES is facing, he said, is that 65 percent of it is eligible for retirement, and the prospect of President Donald Trump's "historic government reorganization may be the needle that finally pricks the retirement bubble that's been waiting to burst."

Retired National Security Agency and CIA director Michael Hayden made the point that policy participation might be more of a challenge under the new administration.

"We're faced with a circumstance where the signals from our most senior executive leadership talk about the 'deconstruction of the administrative state,'" he said. "And when faith-based policies run into fact-based individuals, you are labeled 'the deep state' rather than professional expertise."

Sanders said that an exodus of senior career feds "could be seen as an opportunity" for a refresh of sorts, except that potential successors – high-ranking general schedule employees – have become "disenchanted" with the prospect of becoming SES members.

Former acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration Carolyn Colvin said this is because SES service isn't perceived as conferring advantages on members.

"They don't get additional pay, they're fearful they're going to be scapegoated for something that goes wrong in the agency and they're worried about whether or not [political appointees] are going to support them," Colvin said.

As far as improving the efficacy of the SES, Sanders told FCW that government can "harness tech to get real-time feedback on how the agency is doing, and how citizens and its customers view it."

Measuring mission outcomes would mobilize the executive corps to make improvements, he said. Sanders also said that investing in training programs, pay raises and favoring accountability measures that don't gut workforce protections and make feds
"at will" employees.

Additionally, Sanders said that SES "would be much more motivated" when given a seat at the table for policy discussions and the drafting of executive orders -- decisions they ultimately will be charged with carrying out.

To that end, Sanders said he would like to see the Trump administration meet with SES members and allow them to provide honest input in private, in exchange for publicly carrying out the administration's policies.

In regards to the administration's proposed budget, Sanders expressed certainty "the career executive corps will take its share of cuts."

However, he added that while cuts would affect "levels of resources," they would not necessarily preclude the administration from taking steps to empower the SES.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter


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