What does the future of the SES look like?

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Members of the Senior Executive Service wonder what needs to be done to create a pipeline of future leaders.

At the 2017 Presidential Rank Awards hosted by the Senior Executives Association Dec. 7, senior executives spoke to FCW about the challenges facing agency recruitment and retention, and what needs to be done to create a healthy future pipeline.

Some of the challenges involve budgetary constraints, lingering effects of the hiring freeze and continued vacancies in agency leadership.

SEA president Bill Valdez said that while some agencies are doing a good job of attracting the future generation of SES members, success across government remains "hit or miss."

Among the misses, Valdez said, is the "struggle with is a lack of buy-in from political leadership. Career executives can’t do it on their own."

And with budgets being squeezed across civilian agencies, Suzanne Logan, director of the Office of Personnel Management's Center for Leadership Development, said one creative solution she’d suggest would be to look at the Presidential Innovation Fellows program as a way to bring in executive-level talent for at least a short stint.

For employees who enter government through more traditional paths, agencies need to be training them for leadership and executive positions well before they are promoted into them, she said. "We’re not thinking about the logic of what we're doing in those ways."

Such training programs, Valdez said, could be begin at "the lowest ranks of the general schedule" and be modeled after something like the Presidential Management Fellows program. However, he noted that current resource constraints restrict the ability to train employees beyond what is absolutely required.

Angela Bailey, the Department of Homeland Security’s chief human capital officer, said her agency hasn’t had trouble recruiting new employees, even with the hiring freeze and even for high-demand positions. Instead, she said, “where we have struggled” is in retaining talented professionals, especially in fields like cybersecurity.

Bailey did suggest that, “as a government, we need to start partnering with the elementary schools, the middle schools and high schools, and we need to start driving the curriculum at those levels," towards leadership training.

Todd Fore, assistant deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services for the Air Force, expressed frustration with the entryway for prospective employees: the application process itself.

"Somehow we've got to figure out a way to streamline and make that a much more efficient, easier process than what we actually have today," he said, "because a number of people just look at the application process and go, 'ah, that’s not worth it.'"

When it comes to who and from where government is recruiting, Valdez said government needs to “rethink where we’re finding the talent and how we’re nurturing it... especially as the work of the federal government shifts.”

The current demographics of the senior executive service, he added, do "not look like America, and that needs to change."

Another wish list item for Valdez is to "restore the notion that public service is a noble calling," which will require collaboration from lawmakers who are frequently quick to criticize the federal workforce.

“If you can get over this whole notion bureaucrats are bumbling, that would go a long way,” he said.

Valdez pointed to the honorees of the Presidential Rank Awards as proof that highlights that this notion of inherent dysfunction isn’t true.

The awards include the meritorious rank recipients, which are limited to five percent of career SES or SES equivalents, and the distinguished rank recipients, which represent just one percent of career SES or SES equivalents.

The current crop of Distinguished Rank awardees include former DOD CIO Terry Halvorsen. Ron Ross at the National Institute of Standards and Technology is among the Meritorious Rank awardees.

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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