Senior Executives Association

Welcome to the Senior Executives Association

Senior Executives Association (SEA) is the professional association for career members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) and equivalent positions. SEA is not only the voice of the SES through a strong advocacy program, it empowers senior leaders across government by providing the tools, resources and connections they need to succeed in the 21st century.

SEA's membership spans across government agencies, missions and functions, giving SEA a unique whole of government perspective and the ability to connect to the skills, tools and people (both public and private sectors) that senior leaders need. SEA members receive access to research and news, strategic networks, and connections to the good practices across government that they may not receive on the job.

Above all else, SEA is guided by dedication to public service and to helping career federal leaders better serve the American people.


SEA - Empowering Career Leaders For Success

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Why are Merit Principles Important for Leaders?

Since becoming SEA President in 2016, I’ve met with hundreds of aspiring leaders and discussed with them ways they could prepare themselves for a senior leadership position in the Federal government.

Early on, I began asking the question: “Why are merit principles important for leaders?”

Since becoming SEA President in 2016, I’ve met with hundreds of aspiring leaders and discussed with them ways they could prepare themselves for a senior leadership position in the Federal government.

Early on, I began asking the question: “Why are merit principles important for leaders?”

Unfortunately, 99% of the time I got blank stares in response.   Not only did they not know why merit principles were important, most did not even know that civil service merit principles existed. 

At first, this left me slack jawed.  But then I became curious about why these aspiring leaders wanted to be leaders in the first place.  If they were not aware of the merit principles underpinning the civil service, then why the heck were they interested in government service?

The answers, unsurprisingly, but perhaps inevitably, centered on job stability, interesting work, and the total benefits package that comes with being a Federal employee.  All good reasons, I suppose, but none having anything to do with aspiring to be part of a noble calling to service or wanting to work in the public interest.

I found this a bit sad, but it helps explain why public attitudes toward government are in the toilet.  If aspiring leaders do not understand that public service is a calling, not a job, then perhaps this helps us understand why confidence in government is at an all-time low.   Federal leaders have a responsibility to not only be defenders of the merit principles, I believe we have a responsibility to be their strongest advocates.  Otherwise, the civil service appears in the public eye to be an entitled and an unaccountable workforce.

Maybe we should include a history lesson in leadership development programs.  The merit principles are codified in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act (5 USC  2301(b)), but their origins date pack to the 1883 Pendleton Act, which created the modern civil service.   The Pendleton Act was a response to the politicization and corruption of the Federal workforce and was an attempt to create a non-partisan, merit-based system that promoted an “effective and efficient” Federal government.

The sponsors of the 1978 CSRA believed that in the 95 years between the CSRA and the Pendleton Act that the original intent of a merit-based civil service had been lost, so they codified the merit principles into law.  Today, there are nine merit principles, and the CSRA authors felt so strongly about them that they went the further step of creating a merit principles watchdog:  the Merit Systems Protection Board, or MSPB.

So returning to my original question, “Why are merit principles important for leaders?”, I align the nine principles to the Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) and their responsibility to maintain a Federal workforce that is non-partisan and focused on the public interest.  Below is one such construct, but there are many other ways to frame the merit principles to ensure that they are incorporated into every leader’s toolkit.

Planning – "All employees should maintain high standards of integrity, conduct, and concern for the public interest."

Monitoring – "The Federal work force should be used efficiently and effectively."

Developing – "Employees should be provided effective education and training in cases in which such education and training would result in better organizational and individual performance."

Appraising – "Employees should be retained on the basis of the adequacy of their performance, inadequate performance should be corrected, and employees should be separated who cannot or will not improve their performance to meet required standards."

Rewarding – "Appropriate incentives and recognition should be provided for excellence in performance."

Tags: Message from Your SEA President, Bill Valdez

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Special thanks to SEA's Corporate Advisory Council, helping to support a federal career executive corps of excellence.
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