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SES & the Presidential Transition: Implementation Actions to Drive Immediate & Lasting Government Transformation
This article proposes a process by which the new Administration can immediately, effectively, and efficiently leverage one of America’s most capable and in-place management and leadership entities, our tested and dedicated career Senior Executive Service (SES) and other executive leaders.
The timely empowerment and targeted focus of these senior-level professionals will to enable us to rapidly achieve exceptional and immediate successes across the nation. By implementing Five (5) “Immediate Actions” and Four (4) “Next Steps”, the President-elect’s Transition Team, in direct collaboration with the Senior Executives Association (SEA), can “Make America Great Again” in the shortest amount of time and at least cost.
The views expressed in this document are the personal opinions of James P. Craft and do not represent the position of the US Government or any other organization.
Why Focus Quickly on the Career Senior Executive Service (SES)?
The 7014-member career SES cadre is highly experienced, competent, and in place right now. There is over ten career SES member for every one political SES appointee managing the approximately $4 trillion annual Federal budget, or about one Senior Executive for every thirteen million dollars of Federal spend, which is a reasonable number. The sooner that the SES corps is tuned to the new Administration’s priorities and empowered to act, the sooner the budget will be executed in way that meets those priorities.
The members of the career SES understand their operational space. They are already occupy and perform critical a leadership and technical roles. The employment of their proven skills and expertise will enable the new Administration to move more rapidly, maintain continuity of effort, and ensure the desired successes within in the first 100 days. They can serve key points of influence, work as honest brokers, and be counted on to do what is best for America. Their primary loyalty is to the nation and not partisan bickering. Moreover, the engagement and empowerment of career SES incumbents offer both short-term and long-term benefits. A member of the SES may serve in any one or multiple senior roles for twenty years or more. Bottom line, the upfront and targeted utilization of the existing career SES resources will not only generate superb current value for the nation, it will create a professional legacy the will remain in place well beyond the Administration’s four- to eight-year political lifecycle.
Professional Background and Experience that Drive These Recommendations.
A 38-year career in both the private and public sectors form underlie the following comments. Upon my second return from the private business sector to what has become an extended Federal service, I was tasked with solving some very interesting and complex challenges. This has included working as a career Senior Executive with the United States Marine Corps (USMC) in 2006 following another appointment for a year as the US Senior Telecommunications Advisor on the State Department’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Group (ARG) in Kabul, Afghanistan. The combining of the USMC and ARG experience with that acquired during an earlier US Agency for International Development (USAID) appointment that triggered an effective inter-agency cybersecurity initiative, and extensive consulting work involving over 40 Federal Departments and Agencies including work with the Administrative Office of the US Courts, have all contributed to the following perspectives regarding the importance and necessity of leveraging current and retired government Senior Executives, many of whom are SEA members.
These perspectives also offer a unique hand-on view of the best roles for the employment of America’s career SES resources along with the integration and use of proven and emerging public/private partnerships. All of which can help to expedite and drive the upcoming transition process so that the new Administration can hit the ground at full speed by rapidly engaging the existing career SES cadres in a way that many may view as non-traditional.
The ARG engagement was perhaps the most informative as it involved applying the best of the private sector’s approach to using senior executives to government functions. The National Security Council (NSC) had created the ARG in 2004 as a non-traditional, transformational approach for finding and using exceptional experience from within the global private sector to the complex problem of reconstructing the Afghan economy and civil institutions following the fall of the Taliban government. Having been recruited from PriceWaterhouseCoopers as the ARG’s first US Senior Telecommunications Advisor in mid-2005, I was tasked to coordinate and integrate inputs from top US private-sector executives and senior government employees to advise and assist the Afghan government to creating a modern Information Communications Technology (ICT) sector. Using a win/win approach, we quickly applied market-based, private-sector experience and expertise to generate a host of measurable successful outcomes.
While we did not have a budget or support staff for the task, we found that the public/private collaboration of among the associations along with various Federal interagency, industry, and international partners enabled us to achieve extremely rapid and positive transformation and expansion across the entire Afghan ICT sector. During that year in Afghanistan, the economic growth generated in the ICT sector created tens of thousands of new, well-paying Afghan jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for the Afghan private sector as well as for the Afghan government. Additionally, both successful and unsuccessful attempts to deal with Afghan corruption and its embedded Soviet-style bureaucracy provided us unique insights into what we all must do together to “drain the swamp”. Since creating good jobs and expediting economic growth are some of the Administrations stated top major goals, there are several solid parallel lessons learned from our Afghan experience that can be applied directly to its upcoming and very real immediate challenges.
Based on that experience and other subsequent work as an SES within the both the Marine Corps and the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization (formerly known as the Joint IED Defeat Organization - JIEDDO), it is clear that the Senior Executives Association (SEA) can provide the new Administration with a proven and rapidly available bench of experienced and dedicated professionals to aid them in revitalizing and transforming America. Additionally, the SEA has already provided handbooks for career SES members and to assist new political appointees on how to collaborate effectively including how to work together. The people being nominated for senior positions in the new Administration must have backgrounds that prepare them to lead the SES as it was originally intended; not to merely serve as technocrats and bureaucrats “working the system” to get a check. They must be the leaders driving performance and achieving the desired outcomes.
To that end, the SEA and various other existing working group must work closely with the Trump Transition Team to select, vet, and onboard new political appointees. The SEA has the capability to go further than its current efforts which focus on workshops and handbooks. By getting engaged now, and working closely with all parties, we can make the first 100 days of this new Administration a time of unparalleled bipartisan success and national optimism by quickly solving some of America’s greatest and most pressing global challenges.
Senior Executive Service and Senior Executives Association Historical Perspectives.
The creation of the SES was an effort to apply some of the best features of the private sector’s successful executive management and leadership cultures to help drive and maximize results within the Federal government. However, unfortunately political considerations undermined that intent within a year of its founding. A good summary of the intent of the SES legislative intent is found on the OPM website:
The Senior Executive Service (SES) was established by Title IV of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978 (P.L. 95-454, October 13, 1978) and became effective on July 13, 1979. The CSRA envisioned a Senior Executive Service whose members have shared values, a broad perspective of government, and solid executive skills. Its stated purpose was to "ensure that the executive management of the Government of the United States is responsive to the needs, policies, and goals of the nation and otherwise is of the highest quality." The Government's senior executives would be held accountable for individual and organizational performance. To achieve this purpose, the CSRA gave greater authority to agencies to manage their executive resources and assigned OPM the responsibility for Governmentwide leadership, direction, and oversight.
Federal executives who were under the old system (GS-16, 17 and 18 "Supergrade" employees) were not obliged to enter the SES and could stay in their “Supergrade” positions with no adverse consequences. However, 95 percent voluntarily converted into the SES because of their active recruitment by the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, Scotty Campbell, and OPM. Additionally, there was a promise of higher pay and bonuses to at least 50 percent of the SES. In exchange the SES members gave up locality pay which has always been significant part of government civilian compensation, especially in areas with a high cost of living. As a point of fact, most Senior Executives live in higher cost areas.
Private sector businesses that consistently produce the highest and most consistent results almost always use strong financial incentives for executives which are carefully tied to results. Unfortunately, public support for such incentives for senior government employees has been very weak, and no Administration has sought to educate the public on why it is to their advantage to reward success. As a result, the promise to the SES community of “strong financial rewards for exceptional results” was not kept. Consequently, the full promise of a professional cadre of senior executives with “a broad perspective of government, and solid executive skills” was never completely achieved.
All who wished to join the SES had to do so by June 30, 1979. After the first year of the program, which ended July 1, 1980, the promised bonuses were to be paid out. However, following the first year’s bonus pay-outs, a member of Congress took the floor, denounced the lavish payments to bureaucrats, and proposed a 25-percent limitation on the number of bonuses that could be granted by any agency, a limitation which subsequently passed the Congress as part of an appropriations bill. Thus, bonuses were limited to 20 percent of the corps the following year. The elimination of locality pay remained.
Consequently, many SES members felt frustrated and angry. Ted Kern, then the IRS District Director in Baltimore, met with six other SES members, including Jerry Shaw, Jim Lantonio, Leon Green and Ray Rizzo, later known as the “founding seven” of SEA. The group eventually met with Mr. Campbell to discuss the Administration's future goals to repair their broken promises which had induced executives to enter the SES.
At the meeting, Mr. Campbell made clear that the Administration had no plans to remedy the executives' situation. The only solution Mr. Campbell suggested was for Senior Executives to start their own organization and lobby Congress on their own behalf. Shortly after the meeting, the SEA was founded as a tax exempt, non-profit corporation representing the interests of career federal executives and committed to effective, efficient, and productive leadership in government.
In the last number of years, even the limited incentive awards have repeatedly gone unfunded and replaced by a ceremonial “pat on the back” by the current Administration. Additionally, over the last few Administrations, other problems have arisen that have further undermined the SES initiative that was intended to transform government and generate better results.
Observed Common Challenges and Proposed Improvements.
There are a host of issues with the current political and career government management culture that limit the positive impact of the SES for rapid government transformation. Some of these problems include the effective processes that address and enforce the best use of incentives, professional development, and comprehensive talent management across various departmental lines. All of those are some of the critical ones that continue to impact and often undermine the real long-term success America. While some may not be corrected in the short-term, a dialogue on how to fix them must be started on Day 1. Additionally, there are six key issues where mitigation can be acted upon immediately.
Proposed Improvement: The new Administration needs to quickly communicate its priorities and their benefits with the career SES from the beginning. They must explain how the Administration will work with the career SES to achieve results. This is critical because all citizens need to see what is being done is good for the country in terms of being a “win/win” for all thereby renewing and optimizing confidence in our Federal government. This is a key arena in which the SEA can help because it is organized and chartered to enable and lead those types of discussions among the SES community and other stakeholders in a non-partisan way.
2. The “Silly Season”: This is a term applied to that period in the political cycle when the workforce endures departures of legacy appointments, and then waits for the full chain of new appointments before taking needed actions or even engaging with the public. Political appointees generally begin to resign months before an incumbent Administration ends. These departures put career personnel in an “acting” capacity often with limited powers or conversely the outgoing Administration brings new, less experienced lame duck political appointees that may be merely passing through the job to pad their resume before their party loses power. Even after the inauguration, the new Administration often takes many months, even years, to fill all political positions (682 of which are at the SES level).
Given that many career SES have experienced strong negative responses from new political appointees when they see that the SES did things differently than they would have done, the career SES has found it critical to get a handle on the “new business rules” before they act. Additionally, great effort is expended to bring appointees up to speed on what is going on within the areas that they are assigned to. Even if the new appointee had filled a similar role in an earlier administration, the situation would likely have changed over the years. Many critical issues do not make it into the Transition Briefing Books and briefings, because building those books is a process that is often influenced by personalities and politics.
Proposed Improvement: From the highest levels of the new Administration, it should quickly provide “mission type orders” that clearly articulate what the priorities and overall business rules are. Further the new Administration should encourage career SES awaiting the arrival of new appointees to take initiative based on the overall guidance and publicly commend them when they do. Another critical Proposed Improvement is to streamline and maximize the onboarding of political appointees, to include essential discussions between political appointees and the larger body of career SES, and retired SES.
3. Protecting the Budget versus Rewarding Exceptional Performance: For those who like me have come from industry where the essential point is always the bottom line, it is important to understand that there is often a big difference between the private and public sectors. Much of the US government tends to reward people who excel at protecting budgets rather than delivering performance-based outcomes focused on mission achievement. Many times rewards go to those who excel at keeping the money that those who deliver optimum results on time and within established financial parameters. Large budgets tend to justify larger numbers of senior managers and supporting staffs and as a result focus on and allow pet projects that are not politically viable to be buried in complicated budgets. This push to protect future budgets is shown by the frenzy to spend budget at the end of the year – “the use it or lose it mentality”. While serious investments need to be made to accomplish the new Administrations stated goals, the overall Federal debt is too large and growing at an alarming rate. There must be a new focus on true efficiencies which means changing the reward system to recognize those who stop waste, fraud, abuse, and misuse while delivering optimized support to their stated mission.
Proposed Improvement: Use organizations outside of the Federal Departments and Agencies to help define new realistic mission-centric performance metrics including nurturing and retention processes that find and publicize individuals and teams producing efficiencies and successes throughout the Federal government. Some of the most high-profile and effective successes should be identified and held up as models in the first 100 days of the new Administration.
4. Failure to Appropriately Define and Leverage Incentives. When the SES rank awards are used, it appears they often are applied to a small group that is wired to the headquarters culture, rather than by objective metrics as would be done by industry. This is a complicated problem and it often becomes a type of “disincentive”. With that in mind, there are cases where many feel that a bad or marginalized incentive system is worse than no incentive program at all.
Proposed Improvement: Either make a commitment to fully fund the rank award system and apply experts from the private sector to adjust the legacy incentive system, or reduce or eliminate, the fiscal component of the existing rank award system and restore locality pay to the SES. The use of locality pay would help improve mobility and retention of the SES in high cost areas such as New York, DC, or Hawaii which are currently difficult to fill. The rank awards process could be retained to identify those SES members who consistently generate top-level performance-based executive results. This would help the talent management process across the entire government, to include be able to move key senior people across government to help solve many of the toughest problems.
5. Trends that Create Technocrats and Bureaucrats rather than Executive Leaders: The SES was created to place leaders “with shared values, a broad perspective of government, and solid executive skills”. Within my personal experience, reviews over the last two years of the “mandatory technical qualifications” on the SES job announcements on OPM’s USAJOBS website clearly demonstrates that we have largely replaced the requirements for leadership and a broad perspective of government with a demand for technical skills and knowledge of the internal processes of the specific agency advertising the position. The Federal Government has Senior Leader (SLs) positions which are the technical equivalent of the SES, but most SES positions read like positions for SLs. Applicants for SES positions are screened by various Human Resources professionals who likely weed out many true leaders. Particularly those who possess the leadership components and would excel in the advertised position, but who may not meet the overriding focus on “technocrat” qualifications.
Proposed Improvement: Have a consistent external review of the “mandatory technical qualifications” in job announcements to identify those organizations that are going against the intent of the SES program. Build a cadre of people with strong executive management and leadership skills and proven track records. Create a mechanism to eliminate burdensome or onerous technical requirements go well beyond the true needs of the position. Then, provide a process for top performers, perhaps distinguished and meritorious rank award winners, to be reviewed by the selecting officials without being blocked by the HR organizations or other preemptive screening panels.
6. Ineffective Communications between Political SES and Career SES. Communications between an organization’s leaders and with the workforce is always a critical leadership challenge. In many realms, effective and continuous two-way communication is described in various texts as being the core of leadership. For a variety of reasons, political and career SES often view each other as being from different tribes. Sometimes an inherent lack of trust is very apparent. Often the venues for discussions are very formal. In Stephen Covey’s classic leadership book, “The Speed of Trust”, the first behavior discussed of the thirteen behaviors of high-trust leaders is to “talk straight.” The lack of straight talk hampers and slows down the resolution of all problems faced by a new Administration.
Proposed Improvement: Since the new Administration demands real progress within the first 100 days, two-way communication that increases “the Speed of Trust” is essential. A comprehensive internal communication strategy must be implemented across all departments and agencies and with the public at large. The “right talk” will lead to the right actions, which in turn will lead to the right results. Various non-profit organizations such as the SEA can be effective tools to aid in developing, targeting, and implementing and effective and efficient communications strategy.
Today's Challenges and Opportunities
The presented list of problems is based on a number of real world and emerging observations. At the end of the day, each of those challenges offers each of us an opportunity to achieve positive change. Each requires us to use our imagination and leverage our experiences in order to make a difference and to “Make America Great Again”. There are many factors that are lining up to enable and drive change that would not have even been considered just a few years ago, these factors include:
To seize these opportunities, we need true executive leadership and one way for the new Administration to get that leadership quickly applied in the Federal venue is voluntary collaboration with current and retired SES members. SEA is the natural association to “kick start” that process.
The Power of Voluntary Collaboration
While serving in Afghanistan as the US Senior Telecommunications Advisor, it initially looked like the lack of a supporting budget or staff for my role was a severe handicap. While analyzing the great US investment that was being made in the Iraqi Information Communications Technology (ICT) sector, thoughts of “what could I accomplish with none of those advantages” were omnipresent. When in reality as time went on, the lack of a budget and staff in Afghanistan proved to be a great blessing because it forced me to focus on voluntary collaboration among the many and sometimes warring players in the Afghan ICT sector. Those efforts along with a need to focus on maximizing the investments that the United States had already made before were key to our future successes.
Voluntary collaboration which Alexis de Tocqueville called “associations” in his landmark book “Democracy in America” has been a major unique element of American greatness. In his book, he stated “I met with several kinds of associations in America of which I confess I had no previous notion; and I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.”
In Afghanistan, it was necessary to leverage a number of existing associations and their volunteers, such as the Armed Forces Communications Electronics Association (AFCEA), the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC), and the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA), and helped revitalize the Afghan’s own National ICT Association of Afghanistan (NICTAA). Associations were a linchpin of the results that we had in Afghanistan and organizations such as the SEA should have a major role if we are to have rapid governmental transformation here in the United States.
How does the right use of associations empower success for societal transformation? First, it can help generate passion among their membership for the vision behind the transformation. Second, because they draw on a pool of volunteer labor and public donations, they can help the government achieve cost savings and use their long standing organizational investments to give speed to efforts they support. Third, because they regularly collect the thoughts and ideas of their membership, they are a natural form of “crowd sourcing” thereby allowing good ideas and solutions to arise from all corners of the nation. Fourth, because they are outside of government, they are a mechanism to cut through the bureaucracies. This is done by engaging the public and/or any level of government without having to seek permission first. Where associations are non-partisan and like most non-profits they are not dominated by “for profit firms”. As a result, they often sponsor “widely attended gatherings” where government and private sector individuals can openly discuss issues of mutual concern with much less concern for “Organizational Conflicts of Interest (OCI)” or conflicting with the complex acquisition regulations that often slow down public/private interaction and drive up cost. In short many associations represent a resource that is low cost, dynamic, and adaptable.
If the new Administration wishes to quickly use the career workforce to best advantage, the Senior Executives Association (SEA) is an association that must be part of its plans.
The SEA represents a premiere Federal leadership corps that is forward thinking, entrepreneurial, accountable and serves the national interest with the highest professional standards. SEA promotes leadership policies and programs that enable the Federal government to advance America’s vital national interests. The core value of SEA and its members is a passion for public service leadership exhibiting the highest standards of integrity, professional excellence, and accountability.
Five Immediate Actions Where the Senior Executives Association (SEA) Is Poised to Support Transition and Deliver Immediate Results
Action One: Providing an initial background brief to new appointees and ancillary political establishment and a “Quick Start Checklist” to leveraging the SES. As stated earlier, the SEA has published handbooks for both the new appointees and the career SES throughout the Federal government. These handbooks would be the basis for a one- to two-hour brief to all appointees and any members of the political establishment who wish to engage in the discussion on the use of the SES to generate results.
Action Two: Organizing career SES support details to landing teams and transition organization. While this might be overcome by the frantic pass of the transition period, the SEA could very quickly identify career SES, perhaps even retirees who would volunteer to join details to assist the landing teams that are already preparing for the arrival of appointees at Departments and Agencies. SEA members include current and retired executives from across the federal government. These individuals represent a significant source of institutional knowledge that can be leveraged to drive change. This collaboration could set a positive tone for interaction between the SES community and the new appointees and jumpstart the learning process of all participants.
Action Three: Facilitating onboarding and priority goal setting sessions to inform development of budget. There are legal requirements for the setting of organizational priorities and budget. Meeting these requirements will not be simple. The SEA has already identified a process to assist the new appointees in this initial requirement through a series of facilitated workshops.
Action Four: Facilitating SES workshops that provide departments and agencies a “not for attribution” Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) analysis and top five recommendations for the first 100 days. Recently, I was able to gain the assistance of Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Agency (AFCEA) to pull together an industry, “not-for-attribution” workshop to provide a future Chief Information Officer for the Defense Health Agency a SWOT assessment of the challenges she or he would face upon arrival and their top five recommended actions for the first 100 days. This is a model of what the SEA could do for all areas of the Federal government.
Action Five: Providing informational and training workshops to SES members on the Administration priorities, business rules, and development goals for SES and civilian workforce. The SEA already provides professional development workshops for its members. These efforts could be quickly shaped to align with the priorities of the new Administration.
Taking actions to build trust and rapport between new political leadership and career executive leaders, and the public early in the new Administration will be critical to the success of all new and legacy initiatives. All of which will be necessary in order to substantially transform the bureaucracy and to meet the needs of the nation in an increasingly complex and dangerous 21st century. The faster this is done, the greater probability of success in meeting the new Administration’s goal to “Make America Great Again.”
Immediate Action - Next Steps
While the inauguration is only a few weeks away and time is not our friend when it comes to making things, here are my proposed next steps:
Step One: Arrange a Senior Meeting between key SEA members and staff, the Transition Team, OMB, OPM, and “Think Tank” reps, to gain agreement on the immediate actions and desired outcomes.
SEA is strengthening legacy relationships and developing new, one with well-respected organizations with the goal of collectively moving beyond good government, in pursuit of a great government. Such organizations include NAPA, IBM Center for the Business of Government, Partnership for Public Service, Deloitte, Grant Thornton, Booz Allen Hamilton, etc. Some of these organizations may be useful participants in the initial discussions.
Step Two: Outreach to SEA membership through SEA’s various channels of communication with its members, including a monthly e-publication, member alerts, and action alerts. Leverage the use of those tools to engage and activate its members to participate in polls, offer feedback and suggestions on emergent policy issues, and to participate in inter- or intra-agency and organizational collaborative activities.
Step Three: Conduct rapid prototyping of the immediate actions. The government is big and the best way to get these immediate actions is to choose some key organizations to start and be the “Lead Agency”. Given the ability of certain groups of the career Federal workforce in the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to adapt rapidly, these are the natural place to immediately test recommended immediate actions.
Step Four: Measure, document, and communicate results of the prototyping of the immediate actions throughout the rest of government. If these recommendations prove to be useful, as they will, then they should become a formal part of the regular transition of Presidents.
SEA members know how to get results from their organizations. No group better exemplifies the capability or accomplishment of career senior executives than the winners of the Presidential Rank Awards of Distinguished and Meritorious Executives. These awards can be bestowed annually to a maximum of one and five percent, respectively, of senior executives and senior professionals. SEA’s DEAN’s List has been very active in preparing career executives for transition, and stands ready to be deployed for activities directed by the incoming Administration. Leveraging past Rank Award winners would highlight the President-elect’s stated intent to staff his administration with and seek advice from the very best talent available to generate pragmatic results.