Building a 21st Century SES: Ensuring Leadership Excellence in Our Federal Government

Few would argue that the Federal Government’s Senior Executive Service (SES) is a critical part of our system of governance, serving as the link between the deciding and the doing of the public’s business. 

However, as that cadre approaches its fourth decade of existence, it is no exaggeration to suggest that without some much needed reforms, its future is at risk. 

No one knows this more than members of the SES themselves. Legislation diminishing SES appeal rights—potentially even making career executives ‘at will’—has begun to proliferate, and the pendulum of politics continues to swing between benign neglect of career executives on one hand, and overt distrust on the other. However, those are merely the latest dark clouds on the horizon. Years of pay freezes, limited (or lost) bonuses, even cancelled Presidential Rank Awards have also taken their toll.

Today, more than 65% of the SES corps is eligible to retire, a bubble that’s been ballooning for a decade, and it is only a matter of time before that bubble bursts.

But can anything be done to mitigate that risk? A number of us—current and former senior executives and political appointees who have served Republican and Democratic administrations with distinction—have come together to offer a comprehensive blueprint in that regard. Our thoughts are set forth in a landmark anthology entitled Building a 21st Century SES: Ensuring Leadership Excellence for Our Federal Government, published by the National Academy of Public Administration and available at no charge in pdf and e-book formats on the NAPA Web site.

The book’s premise is straightforward: The excellence of our Nation’s SES members is vital to the effectiveness of 21st century government institutions—especially but not exclusively Federal ones—yet they are developed, selected, paid, and promoted according to a system conceived in the 20th! And although a number of incremental changes to the SES have occurred over the course of its relatively young institutional life span, there is some question as to whether the original, (and as-yet-unrealized) vision of the SES—as a mobile corps of savvy senior leaders deployed to meet the Nation’s challenges wherever and whenever they may arise—is still valid today…and more importantly, tomorrow.

It was my great privilege to produce and edit the volume, as well as to co-author a chapter and provide extensive ‘color’ commentary throughout. I also attempted to synthesize the priceless practical insights of our contributors as the basis for over two dozen recommendations set forth in the book. For the record, I take sole responsibility for their content, not out of pride of authorship but just because I would never presume to speak for the contributors individually or collectively. However, taken together, their insights and my recommendations are intended to provide a blueprint for doing just what the title of the book promises—that is, build a 21st century SES…and in so doing, ensure continued leadership excellence in our Federal government.

Visit the NAPA Washington website where you can watch the full discussion, including a Q&A segment with the audience. 

NAPA Washington Future of SES Event >>


 By Ron Sanders, Vice President and Fellow, Booz Allen Hamilton


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Tags: events, SES, NAPA

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