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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SEA Driving Civil Service Modernization Debate

The career Senior Executive Service (SES) was the keystone – the linchpin – of the civil service system codified by Congress in 1978. It’s no wonder that senior executives and SEA are helping lead the debate 40 years later on the need to modernize the system.

As has been discussed many times previously in this column, the status quo is not hunky dory and as federal sector leaders we have an obligation to contribute to as meaningful and thoughtful of a debate about solutions for complex and wonky issues – like modernizing federal personnel management – as we can.

The career Senior Executive Service (SES) was the keystone – the linchpin – of the civil service system codified by Congress in 1978. It’s no wonder that senior executives and SEA are helping lead the debate 40 years later on the need to modernize the system.

As has been discussed many times previously in this column, the status quo is not hunky dory and as federal sector leaders we have an obligation to contribute to as meaningful and thoughtful of a debate about solutions for complex and wonky issues – like modernizing federal personnel management – as we can.

Luckily we’ve been training for this opportunity for a long time – and benefit from the fact that this debate has reoccurred cyclically every 5-10 years. An even greater benefit: file cabinets full of policy history and proposals, many of which are mostly still just as valid today as when they were developed years ago.

We have also sought to learn the lessons of the past to inform strategies in the present. For one, language matters, as President Valdez expressed in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the President’s Management Agenda 21st Century Talent Focus in May (written testimony; full hearing information).

“There is a significant difference between reform and modernization.

Reform connotes that something is broken and needs to be fixed. Civil servants did not themselves create the current Federal personnel system, but they are frequently blamed for its shortcomings. This is not a fair thing to do to dedicated public servants, telling them they need to be reformed. According to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the vast majority of Federal employees come to work every day trying to do the best job they possibly can.

Modernization connotes being brought up to current standards, not that something is fundamentally broken. The Federal workforce knows the current system is imperfect, and many wish to see it streamlined so they can focus more on mission delivery than compliance. Engaging the Federal workforce in a comprehensive modernization effort will yield better chances for success than battling against it in a reform effort.

As evidenced by participation in 2017 and 2018 in two major hearings around big picture civil service issues, in the Senate and House, respectively, SEA is increasingly being called to the table – whether that be with policy makers on Capitol Hill or with OPM, OMB, and the Administration – to offer its perspective.

As a result, Administration leaders like OPM Director Jeff Pon and OMB Deputy Director for Management Margaret Weichert, among others, have adopted the modernization language vice reform. The interactions we have with them and both the political and career members of their teams suggest they are pursuing the President’s Management Agenda and civil service modernization with the right intentions in mind.

We share a common understanding of the issues holding back the full potential of the federal workforce and government enterprise and earnestly want to do something to unleash feds at all levels.

While some have suggested this Administration seeks to destroy the civil service, our experience suggests otherwise. Change is hard and uncomfortable. But the American people clearly are frustrated and want to see some changes.  Of course there have been hiccups and certain agencies that have experienced problems. We aggressively monitor and act upon those situations – but need to hear more frequently from members when something does not seem right in your organization.

Due to a healthy working relationship, SEA is able to clearly also articulate areas we disagree with the Administration.

Recently OPM Director Pon proposed to Congress a series of legislation to drastically curtail retirement benefits for employees and annuitants. SEA has joined our federal employee colleague organizations to present a unified front pushing back against these proposals, especially those targeting annuitants who retired with a set of expectations and promises from the U.S. Government for their public service. Luckily it does not look like there is adequate support in Congress for these proposals to become law. Concurrently, keeping an open mind about potential prospective changes that could be made for future civil servants should not be taken off the table.

We also are vocal about those areas where we do see alignment, for example around the President’s Management Agenda. SEA is also supportive of President Trump’s recent Executive Orders on the workforce, specifically the Executive Order Promoting Accountability and Streamlining Removal Procedures Consistent with Merit System Principles. This is an EO that actually lives up to its name and is based on some ideas SEA had shared with the Administration last year. Moreover, it is not as big of a deal as some organizations have made out, as federal HR expert Jeff Neal laid out in an excellent blog post analyzing the order.  

So is SEA just a tool for the Administration, are we independent actors, or what’s driving SEA’s thinking on civil service modernization?

As a professional association in the business of federal public sector leadership, SEA inherently is driven by a good government mission, in addition to serving our members and their interests. Our bottom line is a that America needs a highly functioning, apolitical, merit-based civil service to manage the federal enterprise.

Our entry point is always the solid foundations of the civil service including the merit system principles (5 USC § 2301) and prohibited personnel practices (5 USC § 2302(b)). The MSPs and PPPs form the foundation of Title 5 and the modern civil service.

SEA, in conjunction with the Hoover Institution, has convened a broad array of stakeholders for a series of dialogues to explore if these principles are still valid for the modern era and if they may require any updating. The results of these dialogues will be a public forum this fall.  

In response to a request from House Oversight and Government Reform, Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) at the hearing mentioned above, SEA is developing a comprehensive response to a list of ten solid civil service modernization proposals put forth by the Partnership for Public Service.

We believe that talking to parties on all sides of the debate – right, left, center, etc. and seeking to drive consensus and ideas towards the center is the only plausible path forward to successfully securing civil service modernization. This is not easy and we will not agree with everyone on every topic. Yet we are finding uncommon allies and partners in this effort, like the Heritage Foundation and Federalist Society, in addition to more expected allies like the Partnership, National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), and Volcker Alliance.

We are also discovering that there is an across-the-board real interest in ensuring America has a civil service that is capable and provided the tools necessary to manage the federal government. And in that, there is hope that the impasses of past reform/modernization efforts can be overcome in a unique historical situation.

Our fear is that failure to act upon the current opportunity will only further inflame public ire, which could result in particularly bad outcomes, for example a completely at-will federal civil service.

As the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. SEA is most assuredly at the table, and we plan to take full advantage of being there to drive outcomes that are beneficial for the federal workforce, agencies, and the American people alike.

As always, members seeking more information and/or to become more involved in SEA’s policy initiatives are encouraged to sign up for a Community of Change and welcomed to reach out to me directly (briefel@seniorexecs.org). We’re all in this together and our efforts benefit from your knowledge and expertise.

Tags: capitol hill, Jason Briefel

Our Corporate Advisory Council

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Special thanks to SEA's Corporate Advisory Council, helping to support a federal career executive corps of excellence.
Looking for SEA's partners? Check out the organizations we partner with.

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The Senior Executives Association is
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Monday-Friday: 9am to 5pm 
Weekend: Closed

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