Senior Government Executives Bridge Burgeoning Gap

January 1, 2013
By Max Cacas

More activities depend on one group of employees facing severe limitations of their own.

Cutbacks in government programs and personnel are placing greater stress on senior executives just as new restrictions on activities hinder their ability to carry out vital parts of their missions. These restrictions include limitations on how executives can interact with nongovernment organizations and personnel that have been part of long-term, important outreach efforts. Other issues are reducing the attractiveness of a Senior Executive Service position within government. And, this comes as these executives are being relied on to an ever-increasing degree as sea changes sweep through the federal government.

Whether the challenge is overcoming restrictions on conference attendance or maintaining year-to-year operational continuity, members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) are the link between the federal work force and cabinet-level political appointees. While cabinet secretaries set policy and generally make the headlines for their agencies, career federal managers who are part of the SES ensure the daily work of government goes on. And even at a time of uncertainty, whether it is the transition to a post-election administration or dealing with the unknown effects of potential sequestration, the SES provides a degree of long-term continuity for federal department heads.

With little specific guidance from the White House and the Office of Management and Budget on possible sequestration, not much concern has been voiced so far about the potential effects of drastic spending cuts at government agencies on the part of SES members, according to Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association (SEA). The group represents the more than 7,000 federal employees who constitute the SES.

Instead, she emphasizes, her members have increasing concerns about a more immediate but related subject: the effect of civilian and military orders strictly limiting the attendance and involvement of government employees, including managers, at meetings and conferences. She cites the recent edict by the Secretary of the Army limiting attendance by his branch’s personnel to only officially sponsored Army and Defense Department meetings. “The whole GSA [General Services Administration] conference business has been blown out of proportion, but the reverberations have just been terrific. I think we’re going to see far fewer opportunities for government senior executives to get out of their offices, which they need to do on occasion, and have some interaction with other folks,” Bonosaro states.

Nonetheless, she maintains, long-time SES members are accustomed to dealing with periodic short-term uncertainty in working to complete their organizations’ tasks: “They’ve lived through tough situations where their agency might not get their appropriation [from Congress] for months into the new fiscal year.” Bonosaro adds that SES managers also have had to deal with past government shutdowns or when Congress and the White House reached a political impasse on final budget approval.

Bonosaro explains that a serious challenge for the government is convincing a new generation of federal workers to consider entering the ranks of the SES. “I find myself talking to GS-15s and -16s who say, ‘I’m not interested, there’s too much negative and not enough positive to convince me to go into the SES.’” A recent survey conducted by the SEA on the pluses and minuses of serving in the SES revealed “lack of work-life balance” to be the number-one detractor as seen by the more than 12,000 federal employees queried. The possibility of geographic reassignment was the second-ranked detractor. In addition, anecdotal reports of SES members using technology to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week in some key federal agencies is contributing to a less-than-desirable reputation for top-level careers, one that Bonosaro believes must be overcome to replenish the corps of SES managers.

SES managers serve directly under politically appointed cabinet-level secretaries and agency directors; some have jobs requiring presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Bonosaro, who was one of the first SES members to serve at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, explains that the SES was formed to resolve governmentwide discrepancies in pay and promotional opportunities for mid-level managers who were “super grade” employees and had reached the top of what was then the government’s general schedule pay system.

Bonosaro explains that, “The primary emphasis was to give agency leadership flexibility” in being able to reassign managers to other positions as needed. In addition, she says, the SES provides incentives for super-grade managers to move into the SES by offering “more rewards, including the ability to carry over more annual leave, to have performance awards, to take sabbaticals. In exchange, SES members would be held to more stringent standards—it’s going to be easier to remove you; you’re not going to have any appeal rights. That formula worked to convince virtually everyone to move into the SES.”

As of September 2012, 7,167 career federal managers were part of the SES, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. In addition, 675 non-career SES officials are serving in government agencies, Bonosaro says. This compares with 6,523 career and 678 non-career managers in September 2007; and 6,205 career, 630 non-career managers in September 2002. No matter who is in the White House, or at the head of a government agency, SES managers are an important part of making government work, she explains. “These are the people who can make you [the president] and your administration successful. These are the people that you need, and you would do well to see them as partners.”

Over its nearly 35-year history, the SES has changed in focus, reflecting the realities of agency needs and the nature of government managers’ careers, she explains. In 1978, the SES was envisioned as a corps of experienced government managers who could transfer from department to department as needed to respond to various short-term government needs, including standing up an agency such as the Department of Homeland Security from scratch. Bonosaro notes that for many years, the SEA has proposed the creation of a personnel management database system—similar to that used by the U.S. Navy to track its own senior civilian managers and officers—to help the OPM facilitate SES career management. Such a system would allow the Internal Revenue Service, for example, to search the database for an information technology manager who might be brought to the IRS under a temporary detail to help resolve a specific problem with a computer database or network.

In addition, the idealistic concept of a governmentwide corps of roving expert managers conflicts with the practical realities of managing a federal agency. Recalling a task force initiative to improve mobility prospects for SES members during the Clinton administration, Bonosaro explains that officials soon realized most agency heads “like their managers working just where they are, and we don’t want to move them. Over time, they also learned that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to personnel mobility within the SES does not work for all categories of managers.

“If you’re in human resources, or information technology, it might be easy to move around. But we’ve also learned that there is no substitute for learning the agency’s business, no matter what it is you do,” Bonosaro concludes.


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