SES Reform: Some Facts

I read an interesting article on Federal News Radio where former Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue slammed OPM for how it administers Senior Executive Service hiring. Mr. Astrue took several shots at the Office of Personnel Management that I believe are unfair. OPM has its critics (and I have been among them), but fair is fair. When we criticize OPM or any other federal agency, we should stick to facts.

In the article, Mr. Astrue says “It makes it much more difficult to get outstanding talent from the outside, and I lost a couple of really terrific people that way. And it also means that they [OPM] under-value skill sets that are important. And it’s particularly true for information technology.” He continued to say “And yet, OPM doesn’t recognize that, and it’s not any coincidence that they can’t run their own IT systems. If you’re filing for retirement as a civil servant — as I am, I’m filing for retirement now, I’m going through the process — it’s horrible. You can’t file electronically, the system’s a mess. Often it takes six months to 12 months to have it happen. Sometimes longer, I’ve heard those horror stories. And it comes in part because it’s an agency that doesn’t value expertise in information technology.”

He continues to say “You’d try and talk to them and they’d say, ‘Well, this person hasn’t managed 50 people,’ or something like that. And we’d say it’s an IT person, it’s a lawyer coming out of one of the very best law firms in Washington. They typically don’t get those types of experiences, that’s not the way their worlds are. But they’re outstanding because they have this accomplishment, this accomplishment and this accomplishment, and these are needs that the agency has. And they basically said, ‘We don’t care.'” “There should be a timeline for OPM decisions. And if they can’t make a timeline, make a decision within 30 days or 45 days or by default the agency decision should stand,” Astrue said. “They need to write guidelines — because if things aren’t down on paper, they’re not going to check the box at OPM — that stresses to a greater degree than now that the importance of accomplishment and expertise. Federal government runs with an outstanding civil service that should be politically neutral, and when OPM allows the process to become political, it really does diminish the excellence of the civil service, and it discourages people from applying and from staying,” he said. “I know from my experience that’s a real issue that increasing in severity and it’s something that this administration is not paying attention to.”

No. No. No.

First, the screening process for SES positions is administered by OPM, but OPM uses Qualifications Review Boards comprising SES members from agencies other than OPM. The system was designed to keep agencies from hiring people for SES positions who are not qualified, and to protect the competitive SES from being loaded with political hires. It is part of the checks and balances government requires to avoid the Civil Service reverting to a spoils system. QRBs make the call on qualifications and when they reject a selectee it is usually because they do not have experience that satisfies the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs). There is nothing in the ECQs that is unusual or overly burdensome. Expecting someone to have experience as a manager before becoming a Senior executive is not excessive. The government has positions that are suitable for people with no management experience – they are called Senior Level (SL) or Senior Technical/Professional (ST). Agencies can also use political appointments to reach people who cannot go through a competitive process successfully. The career Senior Executive Service is not a place for people who have never managed anything.

Second, retirement applications do not typically take 6 to 12 months for approval. The process is certainly not as efficient as anyone (including OPM) would like, but there are a lot of reasons for that. Chief among them is the lack of consistency in agency HR record-keeping systems and the fact that many records that are required to process a retirement claim are not automated themselves. Even if OPM had a modern retirement processing system, it would still have to deal with agency systems and paper records.

Finally, OPM’s SES program team certainly does care about the SES and the ability of the federal government to recruit and retain good executives. I know those folks (they are career employees) and have complete confidence in their ability and integrity. They are not rejecting applicants for SES positions for political reasons. In more than 30 years in government I have seen people hired into career SES positions where I thought they were hired because of their connections. I have never seen an OPM QRB reject someone for those reasons. In fact, the most notable case I saw when I was in government was where the political leaders of the agency wanted to hire someone who was not qualified for a career SES job. An OPM QRB rejected the applicant because he was not qualified. They did their job and the system worked as designed.

Could OPM be made better? Yes, but we can discuss reforms while relying on facts and not impugning the integrity of the career workforce at OPM.

Leading America’s Workforce: Did President Obama Hit the Mark?

On December 9, President Obama addressed a group of Senior Executive Service members to thank them for their service and outline 3 initiatives to recognize customer service and improve development opportunities for aspiring leaders. The speech got a mixed response, with some people saying it was on target and others, including my friend, Federal News Radio’s Francis Rose, saying the President’s reform plan may make the problems worse.

President Obama offered 3 specific ideas for SES reform:

  • White House Leadership Development Program for Future Senior Career Executives. Intended to increase mobility and provide SES members and SES candidates with experience on high impact programs outside their agencies, this program has the potential to make mobility far more real than it has been. The original intent of the SES was to have executives who were mobile and whose skills could be applied across government. That intent has never been realized, even though it has been at the top of most lists of reform ideas for years. Finally having a program that has the backing of the White House is a good thing and this program may be the first to get real results.
  • White House Advisory Group on SES Reform. While we have had more groups looking at SES reform than I care to remember, they have generally consisted almost entirely of academics, business leaders with little government experience, and politicians. The new Advisory Group will include current SES, SL and ST members, as well as aspiring SES candidates. We have known for years that the best people to advise on improving business processes are the people who do the work. Having these folks involved in the Advisory Group gives me hope that it may actually produce results.
  • Customer Service Awards Program. The White House says this program will “focus SES and employees on outcomes and improving the quality, timeliness, and effectiveness of the services they provide to the American people and American businesses….” We have had awards programs in government for many years, including some that focus on customer service. The difference here is that this program will raise the awards to the agency head and Presidential level. That is a big difference from other programs – a difference that should make it more likely to succeed.

I have heard from many people who said the President should have spoken to the SES sooner. I agree. It would have been great to see the President address the senior career leaders in his first year in office. But – the President is still the President and any time we can get this or any President of the United States to pay attention to the needs of our career workforce, I welcome it. Every Administration learns the lesson that nothing they want to accomplish can be done without the good work of the 2 million career Federal employees. President Obama commented on how surprised people who come from industry are when they realize the Federal workforce is filled with talented, hard working and innovative people. Those of us who have been in that workforce know that the talented Feds far, far outnumber the stereotypical bureaucrats.

So – did the President’s speech hit the mark? Yes. He may be a little late to the game, but he came with strong ideas and is willing to put the strength of the White House behind them. I am looking forward to seeing the results.