Oversight of the Federal Workforce: The Viability of the Senior Executive Service
SEA President Carol Bonosaro's Oral Statement
Chairman Farenthold, Ranking Member Lynch, and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.
The Senior Executives Association represents the nearly 7,000 career members of the SES. For several years, SEA has been sounding the alarm about the challenges facing the SES and areas of needed reform. Many of these issues have now become critical in the face of problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
So I would like to make just two points. First, with regard to the state of the SES. A strong SES is critical to effective agency operations and workforce management yet there are serious risks to both the short and long term viability of the senior career executive system.
Career SES are highly-qualified professionals who oversee sizeable agency budgets and complex programs, have a large span of control and are often also technical experts in their fields and face a rigorous selection process to enter the SES.
They are in a completely separate personnel system, with no locality pay; all pay adjustments and awards are based on performance and entirely discretionary with the agency; and they have no effective appeal rights.
The perception seems to be that a certain number of executives must be poor performers and that the ratings of many are inflated. If a large number of Senior Executives were not working at the fully successful level or higher, it would indicate an ineffective selection process. Where there are poor performers, sufficient remedies exist to hold them accountable with relative ease. And let me be clear, SEA believes they should and must be held accountable.
A February survey of our membership found 51% of respondents rating overall morale among the SES at their agencies as "low or very low." The rate of retirement of current SES is up 40% since 2009. And talented, able GS-14s and 15s are declining to go into the SES. Thus, the Service may well become a place of last resort as high performing employees take their skills to the private sector.
What has led to this situation? An essentially broken pay for performance system, the pay freeze, a substantial reduction in performance awards, suspension of the Presidential Rank Awards in 2013, ever-increasing challenges to do more with less, but also a series of punitive legislative proposals to penalize all Senior Executives regardless of their performance and an atmosphere which inhibits risk-taking and innovation because failure is unacceptable and too many career executives facing investigations have been treated as guilty until proven innocent.
SEA recommends some essential reforms to the SES. They are outlined in our written statement and we stand ready to work with the subcommittee in a comprehensive review of the system to ensure reforms that promote fairness, transparency and efficient government management – the continued viability of the SES depends on such reform.
My second point has to do with the serious allegations regarding operations at the VA – and we fully appreciate congressional concerns regarding these allegations. However, the focus – on career SES leadership – is wrong.
The systemic issues at VA will remain, irrespective of changes in the personnel system, because these systemic issues are ones which political leadership has repeatedly failed to address.
Political leadership – not career executives – call the shots, to use the vernacular.
Tools exist to fire Senior Executives with ease and it is total nonsense to suggest that they don't. If they're not being used, it is for one of two reasons – either the executive isn't actually accountable OR political leadership isn't willing to use the tools. To provide just one example, falsifying government records is a criminal act. If someone is believed to have falsified records, such a case can and should be referred to the Inspector General, and, upon verification, the case should be referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution.
Punishing all VA Senior Executives by banning performance awards irrespective of performance or creating "at will" employment in the SES which could enable a new Administration to clean out the department and bring in ill-qualified candidates will do more harm than good. The best current executives will retire and excellent candidates will refrain from applying to the SES. And who will be left to provide the care and services which veterans need and deserve?
What's been proposed will create more harm than good, though what SEA is suggesting is not a quick or an easy fix. But if we care about ensuring that taxpayers have the best career leadership corps necessary to provide quality programs and services, then the focus should be turned to needed reforms to the SES system and to holding political leadership accountable.