Center Blog

Getting Things Done: Career Federal Leadership

June 29, 2016

David Garcia, Research Manager, Partnership for Public Service

When the incoming administration focuses on onboarding its political leadership team in 2017, it will not be alone. The new team will be supported by the 7,000 members of the Senior Executive Service—the career leaders who provide continuity and expertise in government.

Career senior executives lead the federal workforce, develop and implement nearly all the government’s programs and policies, and provide essential continuity and mission focus during times of political transition. A third of the SES manage more than 200 employees or oversee a budget larger than $100 million. They have expertise in the business of government.

While the SES is highly accomplished, a recent report by the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Company found that it’s not as healthy as it could be. The report focuses on four dimensions—culture, recognition and prestige; recruiting and hiring; performance management; and leadership development—that a new administration can incorporate into its talent management agenda.

    Culture, Recognition and Prestige

    Career senior executives report higher levels of job satisfaction and commitment than the General Schedule employees they manage, yet congressional and media scrutiny weigh on morale, and some senior executives report feeling detached in the workplace. Moreover, too few federal employees are interested in becoming members of the SES.

    Creating opportunities for senior executives to network with one another could help boost the health of the SES. So could recognizing the accomplishments of the SES more frequently. The Department of Education and Federal Executive Boards in Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles have recently done just that.

    Recruiting and Hiring

    Facing the prospect of a looming retirement boom—two-thirds of career senior executives are eligible to retire within the next five years and 85 percent are eligible in the next decade—agencies must be able to recruit and hire top talent to replenish the ranks.

    To do so, agencies could streamline how they recruit and hire senior executives, ensuring that the best and the brightest are not discouraged from applying by a burdensome process.

    The Department of Energy piloted resume-based hiring in 2015 and saw its time-to- hire decrease by 95 days. And the General Services Administration, an adopter of resume-based hiring, hired more career senior executives from outside government than all but one CFO Act agency in fiscal 2015.

    Performance Management

    The SES performance management system could be implemented more consistently. In fiscal 2014, one Cabinet-level agency awarded the highest possible performance rating to 92.4 percent of its career senior executives, while another agency awarded the highest rating to just 19.3 percent.

    To improve SES performance management, agencies could ensure that they are rigorously evaluating performance based on quantitative results tied to agency mission, as well as qualitative feedback.

    Leadership Development

    Despite data showing that senior executives who have leadership development opportunities are more satisfied with and committed to their jobs, leadership development is inadequately prioritized at the senior executive level. Moreover, senior executives too often do not participate in the types of leadership development activities shown to be the most effective—those that are action-oriented or directly applicable to their day-to-day jobs.

    Some agencies are taking creative steps to improve talent development. The Securities and Exchange Commission created a College of Leadership Development at its Washington, D.C. headquarters, complete with a dean and an annually-revised course catalog. The college’s leadership development courses (called electives) are sophisticated (think neuroscience) and designed to meet highly accomplished senior executives at their level.

In December 2015, President Obama issued an executive order aimed at strengthening the SES. The executive order should inspire stakeholders to take innovative steps to put the SES on sound footing.

While good work is sometimes interrupted as administrations change, the SES is too important for that to happen. Efforts to strengthen the SES at the end of the Obama administration must be continued and built upon in the next administration. You can download the entire report here.


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