Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste

In the aftermath of scandals and problems at agencies, Washington loves to overreact and move too hastily. The town then moves onto the next shiny thing. Implementation is not a serious consideration.

The consequences can sometimes be messy – take the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The touted reform that would make it easier to fire SESers was deemed unconstitutional in 2016. The Choice healthcare program suffers from design flaws that Congress is still trying to fix. It remains to be seen if the latest accountability and health program reforms are doing more harm than good to the system.

In the aftermath of scandals and problems at agencies, Washington loves to overreact and move too hastily. The town then moves onto the next shiny thing. Implementation is not a serious consideration.

The consequences can sometimes be messy – take the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The touted reform that would make it easier to fire SESers was deemed unconstitutional in 2016. The Choice healthcare program suffers from design flaws that Congress is still trying to fix. It remains to be seen if the latest accountability and health program reforms are doing more harm than good to the system.

It doesn’t have to be so messy. By truly understanding the core issues at play, engaging expert practitioners (like SEA members), and not overreaching, meaningful improvements can be advanced.  This is the strategy that guides SEA’s policy and legislative strategies.  In two recent cases the strategy is yielding beneficial results.

Case 1 – Executive Resources Boards

In 2017 the Interior Department reassigned approximately three dozen senior executives with no advance notice and inconsistent rationale. At the time SEA said the personnel actions appeared to comply with the letter of the law but perhaps not necessarily the spirit, and did not reflect a great deal of respect for career senior leaders. In April the DOI Inspector General released a report finding that the agency essentially had no business case they could demonstrate or document for the personnel actions. SEA asserted the report confirmed that the Department’s actions constituted a “slipshod justification for abuse of taxpayer resources, including the agency’s career executive talent assets.”  This prompted a reassessment of previous policy and regulatory proposals from SEA to strengthen ERBs.  We are exploring the following areas and welcome members to send thoughts and feedback to briefel@seniorexecs.org.

-         Documentation & Transparency – ERBs should document each meeting; composition of ERB should be announced in Federal Register (like PRBs); ERB charter & minutes should be posted on agency website

-          Composition of ERBs – ERBs should have a 70-30 split between career and political members; each ERB should be convened and chaired by the CHCO; agencies should develop broad criteria on the types of employees/technical skills/backgrounds that may serve on an ERB; agencies should have a plan to ensure diversity among ERB members

-          Convening ERBs – ERBs should be convened every 6 months, with one ERB per HQ agencies, and one ERB for each component (unless the component is small and then the HQ ERB can serve as the component ERB); ERB members will serve for the duration of the 6 month period

-          Scope of ERBs – They should oversee CDP selections and other executive development (in line with agency strategic talent development), initial hires into the SES, SES reassignments, and SES selections at any level (also in line with agency strategic talent management); The ERB should review agency SES and SL/ST slots to ensure they align with agency senior leadership needs; The ERB should be especially focused on reassignments, hiring, etc during a presidential transition and immediately following the 120 day period; discretionary – executive performance management (in coordination with the PRB)

-          ERBs should be tied into the Strategic Human Capital Management plans as outlined in 5 CFR Part 250. ERBs should have evaluation and performance metrics that ties into the plan and ERB members should be given information on the HCF/HCOP of the agency to inform their work.

Leveraging the Interior OIG report being in the news, SEA has since garnered bipartisan interest in legislative reforms that strengthen the transparency with which ERBs operate, among other potential reforms. We have heard that other agencies are reexamining their own ERB practices and are seeking guidance and resources. SEA has also discussed the issue with OPM and recently suggested in a letter to Director Pon that a task force be established between SEA, OPM and the CHCO Council to explore the issue.  SEA also recently met with Interior Deputy Secretary Bernhardt to discuss the personnel actions, the IG report, and improvements and better practices the agency has adopted in recent months as a result of this situation.

Case 2 – Relocating Federal Employees Facing Tax Bills

In late March SEA became aware that federal employees who relocated for their jobs were being sent tax bills by their agencies. This was an unexpected outcome of tax reform with the potential to affect 25,000 feds who relocate each year for their jobs. SEA rallied a group of employee organizations to write GSA about the issue. Employee advocacy and media coverage drew the attention of Virginia’s Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine who have also been pressing GSA to issue updated regulations. SEA is beginning to hear that the GSA regulations should be released in the coming weeks, and it appears likely agencies will be provided authorization to make employees negatively impacted thus far whole.  Tax reform also created some wrinkles in relocation related taxes for new hires, SES last move home, and returning from OCONUS.  Addressing these changes requires statutory changes that will be a more difficult lift. However, the President’s goal outlined in his Management Agenda to develop and cultivate a 21st Century workforce provides a basis for arguing for tailored legislative improvements to ensure the government can attract the talent it needs.

In both of these cases, crises are being leveraged to advance smart and targeted policy conversations and reforms. SEA’s stature as an honest broker and straight shooter is a real asset in a city often not known for those characteristics. As always, I welcome hearing from members about policy issues and ideas they would like to hear from the Association about.

Tags: capitol hill, Jason Briefel

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