The Washington Post reported yesterday on the Obama Administration’s upcoming proposals to revitalize the Senior Executive Service (SES). Among other things, the Post says the President will propose more mobility (within government and between government and the private sector and academia) for SES members, a simplified application process to encourage candidates to apply for SES positions, and a gradual increase in pay for SES members. The proposed changes are the result of months of work by a group of two dozen people assigned to a Presidential task force that looked at the SES and changes that should be made to improve it. I believe they have developed a set of sound proposals that will result in positive changes. They will not solve every problem, but they are realistic and are a good first step.
Whenever anyone writes an article on the SES, I hear a lot of complaints, both in favor of and opposing changes to any aspect of the SES. So – I thought it might be helpful to address some of those issues and do a little “myth busting” on the subject, while also offering some facts about the SES.
- Based on OPM’s Fedscope data, in June 2015 there were 7,723 members of the SES. Of those, 6,927 were career, 706 were non-career (political), 82 were limited term, 1 was Limited Emergency, and 7 were listed as “unspecified”
- 5,056 SES members are men (65.5%), 2,667 are women (34.5%). Overall, the federal workforce is 56.75% male and 43.25% female. In 2013, OPM reported that the SES is 80% white.
- 75% of SES are located in the Washington, DC area
- The average pay of the career SES is $171,565, while the average for non-career (political) is $161,885. The maximum salary for an SES in an agency with a certified SES appraisal system is $183,300. In agencies without a certified appraisal system, SES pay tops out at $168,700. In the Washington, DC locality area, GS-15 pay tops out at $158,700
- SES pay is tied to the “Executive Schedule” which is used to set pay for senior political appointees. $183,300 is Level II of the Executive Schedule.
- There is no locality pay for SES
- The average length of service of career SES is 23.2 years. For politicals it is 7.9 (some politicals have prior non-political civil service or creditable military time)
- Regardless of length of Service, SES members receive 26 days of annual leave per year.
- Veteran preference does not apply to the SES
- SES members are overpaid. It is true that $170K or more is a lot of money, but relatively speaking, it is not too much for the level of responsibility that many SES members have. Compared to private sector salaries, SES pay is not excessive and for many SES positions it is too low. That does not mean there are no overpaid SES. Some agencies have SES positions that have very little policy, management or budget responsibility. It is likely that those positions are overpaid. The solution is a comprehensive review of SES positions that would most likely result in a reduction in the number. A reduction of non-career (political) SES positions would also make sense.
- SES are paid overtime and/or comp time that substantially increases their compensation. SES are not eligible for overtime pay or compensatory time off.
- SES have special retirement benefits. SES are covered by FERS (or the old CSRS), just as any other federal employee. They do not receive any special benefits or eligibility.
- SES cannot be fired. Much like the myth that other federal workers cannot be fired, this one is simply untrue. SES can be fired and can easily be forced to accept a geographic move or face removal. What is true is that agencies rarely use their authority to fire SES. From FY2010 to June of this year, 4,780 SES left federal service. Only 33 were fired for disciplinary or performance reasons. That number most likely understates the number of SES who are pushed out for performance or conduct reasons. When an agency turns up the heat on an SES who is eligible to retire, the result is often a quick exit. The perception that it is too hard to fire SES members is one reason agency leaders rarely do it – they believe the myth too. While changing the SES to at-will employment as some have suggested would risk returning to a spoils system for senior executive positions, some changes to the processes for taking disciplinary and performance actions, coupled with a streamlined appellate process that guarantees appeal to the full Merit Systems Protection Board, could be a worthwhile reform.
- SES positions are easy to fill. That was true in the past. Agencies advertising SES positions would receive an ample number of highly qualified applicants for most SES jobs. That is becoming less true today. As SES members are drawn into the political fighting in Congress, targeted by name when issues arise, and have bonuses eliminated or reduced, more and more high potential GS-14 and 15 candidates are choosing not to apply. Combine that with the already low number of non-government applicants and the result is a shortage of good candidates for many jobs.
- Agencies pick anyone they want for SES positions. All new SES selections have to be approved by an independent OPM Qualifications Review Board with members from other agencies. OPM QRBs can and do reject selections.
The premise that SES positions in general are overpaid is not supported by facts. An interesting and informative comparison is the historical pay difference between today’s GS-15 and the SES and the predecessor GS-16, 17 and 18 “Supergrades” and GS-15 positions at the time the Supergrades existed. Forty years ago, the 1975 GS pay tables show a pay range of $31,309 to $40,705 for GS-15 and a range of 36,338 to 48,654 for GS-16, 17 and 18. In other words, Supergrade pay ranged from 89% to 120% of a GS-15, step 10. Today, SES pay ranges from 77% to 116% of a GS-15, step 10. If SES pay today matched the historical levels, the pay range would be $141,243 to $190,440 rather than $121,956 to $183,300. Raising the bottom of the range so we do not have SES that earn less than many GS-14s and raising the top of the range to provide more of a pay difference between SES and GS-15, step 10 makes a lot of sense. The Administration can effectively raise the bottom of the pay range through policy decisions, but they cannot change the top of the range without legislation.
Given the critical role most SES positions play in their agencies, it is in the interest of the American people to have the most capable senior executives possible. Addressing the pay issue is a good step that could be combined with legislative changes that would also make individual SES members more accountable for performance and conduct. Whatever happens, changes to the SES must ensure we are able to recruit and retain the caliber of executive talent the government needs and maintain a merit-based SES.