Category Archives: News

A Better Approach to SES Mobility

We are hearing a lot recently about SES mobility, mostly in the context of involuntary reassignments of senior executives at Interior, USDA and other departments and agencies. Involuntary moves are not routine, but they are part of what SES members sign up for when they accept the jobs. Every SES knows that s/he may be reassigned, including reassignments that involve geographic moves.

Knowing that you may be reassigned does not mean it is welcome when it happens. Reactions can be intensely negative, even when an agency can articulate good business reasons for the move. When an agency does not have a credible reason, involuntary moves can negatively affect employee morale, cause increased SES turnover, and may hamper SES hiring.

Does that mean agencies should never do involuntary moves? No. There are times when it makes sense to move executives. The obvious reasons are to better align skills to agency needs, and to put people where agency leaders believe they are most needed. Another reason that is less popular is to put a leadership team in place that the agency leader wants. That one tends to create ill will and often leads to explanations that are not particularly credible. In such cases I believe it is better for agency leaders to simply be honest and admit that they are not happy with the people who are in place and that they want to put different people in the jobs. Convincing someone that the brutally honest approach is best is not always possible, so we see sometimes see moves accompanied by explanations that sound contrived (because they are). Another reason that agencies typically will not admit to is a move intended to encourage or force an executive to leave the agency. The one reason for moving senior executives (or any employee) that should never be used is disagreement with the executive’s real or perceived political views. Moving any employee for political reasons is a prohibited personnel practice and is not legal.

When my ICF colleague Deb Tomchek and I were at the Department of Commerce, the Secretary (Bill Daley) wanted to move some executives. There were two reasons for the moves – some were because the department had critical needs and he wanted to put proven performers in the jobs. Others were because the Secretary was unhappy with the people who were in several key positions. Some were both – the person who was moved out was not meeting the Secretary’s performance expectations, while the person who was moved in was a high performer. Less than 20 executives (of more than 300) were moved in the first year.

The initial reaction to that first round of moves was swift and negative. If you did not know the numbers, you might have guessed that half of the department’s executive were moved. The reaction was so strong that some members of congress sought to punish the department for the moves by cutting dollars from the budget for the Office of the Secretary. The congressional reaction was based, in part, on the fact that some members of congress were getting inside information from Commerce executives who were attempting to undermine the Secretary’s objectives. The executive moves were completely within the confines of the law and regulations that govern the SES and the civil service in general. With the first round of moves, many of those executives who were moved said afterward that they intensely disliked the process and being blindsided by what happened. But – they were actually happy with the new jobs and found they enjoyed the new challenges posed by the positions. Even though the moves followed the rules and the outcome was generally good, there was a better approach that would accomplish results with far less controversy.

The following year the department did another round of SES moves, but the approach was very different. We built a process and an online tool to encourage SES mobility, and to provide every senior executive in the department with information about every Commerce SES job. Proponents of SES mobility often wonder why so few executives move around within a department or agency. One key reason is that they do not have good information on every SES position. By providing that information, and providing a means of expressing interest in other jobs, Commerce was able to encourage executives to seek other positions in the department. The second round of SES moves included a few involuntary reassignments, but most moves were voluntary. Secretary Daley considered the SES mobility program to be one of the best moves he made as Commerce Secretary.

I believe the Trump Administration should consider implementing a similar SES mobility program, beginning with intra-agency moves, then expanding it to include moves between agencies. Such a program would encourage more SES moves, while greatly reducing the negative consequences of moves that are entirely involuntary. Even in cases where an agency intends to do an involuntary move, it is a better to discuss the move with the executive and try to identify a landing space that is a good match for the executive’s experience. Agencies retain the authority to make involuntary reassignments, but would achieve better results with a mix of voluntary and involuntary moves that is aimed more at the voluntary approach.

How the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017 May Drive Civil Service Reform

On Aug. 12, the president signed the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017. Readers who do not work in the Department of Veterans Affairs may be wondering why they should care about a new law that applies only to the VA. This bill, the latest in a series of department-specific reforms, provides a good look at both the approach and the substance of reforms we should expect to see in the rest of the federal government.

Much like the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, and the Defense Authorization Act of 2017, the new law provides targeted reforms that are tailored to meet the requirements of a single department. In this case, the emphasis is on the hiring process. The law provides for:

  • Expanded authority to declare shortage category positions
  • An Executive Management Fellowship Program to enable training of VA employees in the private sector and employees from the private sector to train in VA.
  • Annual performance plans for political appointees
  • Reappointment of former VA career and career conditional employees in a position one grade higher than they last held
  • A technical expert career track that would allow advancement without the need to move to a supervisory position
  • Excepted service appointments of students and recent graduates, leading to conversion to a career or career conditional appointment
  • Establishment of a recruiting database covering every vacancy in the department, with the ability to select applicants for positions other than the one for which they originally applied
  • Training for human resources professionals of the Veterans Health Administration on how to best recruit and retain employees of the Veterans Health Administration, including with respect to any recruitment and retention matters that are unique to the Veterans Health Administration under Chapter 74 of title 38, United States Code, or other provisions of law
  • Standardized exit surveys to be voluntarily completed by career and noncareer employees and executives of the department of  who voluntarily separate
  • Expansion of direct hire authority for positions where there is a shortage of highly qualified candidates

A couple of these are particularly interesting. The ability to rehire employees one grade level higher than the position they left is something that many HR leaders have advocated. It provides the department with more flexibility, eliminates the need for competition for many rehires, and could encourage former employees to return to the department, bringing new skills they obtained in other jobs. There is likely to be some complaining that it allows managers to skirt competition, but the overall outcome is likely to be more flexibility to hire people into positions they would eventually have been selected for anyway.

Another provision that is excellent is the flexibility to hire students and recent graduates. The entire government is struggling to hire new employees under age 30, so this flexibility is essential to enable real college recruiting that has a chance of working.

I was also pleased to see the requirement for training for HR professionals. Too often we forget about the people who are actually doing the work and fail to provide them with the training they need to be successful.

There is nothing in this law that could not apply to every other department and agency in government. I would be surprised if that is not what eventually happens. As we see these changes implemented in VA and the DOD-specific changes that are taking hold, other departments are going to ask for the same flexibility. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have expressed interest in civil service reform. Knowing how difficult it is to get bipartisan agreement on anything, the path that is likely to succeed is considering the DOD and VA bills to be “proof of concept” acts that allow big departments to take reforms for a test drive. If they work (and they most likely will), getting bipartisan majorities to support expansion to the rest of the government becomes the path to reform.