SES Members Lack Mobility, study finds

Senior Executive Service (SES) members lack the mobility Congress envisioned when it created the SES in 1978, according to a new study from the Partnership for Public Service and McKinsey & Co.

“The original vision for the SES as a mobile corps of leaders has never come to fruition,” the report stated. “The federal government can revive that vision – not just to be faithful to the spirit in which the SES was founded, but because greater executive mobility will improve the quality of the government’s leaders and, consequently, government performance.”

Of the 7,100 current SES members, nearly half have never changed positions and a mere 8 percent have changed agencies, the study said. Fewer still have worked outside the federal government, whether in state and local government, a non-profit setting or the private sector.

Mobility in the SES could be hindered by several factors, the report stated, including the absence of a government-wide system to report and learn about SES career opportunities. Currently, executives must rely on word-of-mouth to learn about SES position openings. Agencies, in an attempt to employ more “technical experts,” also tend to “hoard talent” and fail to provide rotational opportunities for executives who may lack the necessary skills. Executives themselves may also contribute to the mobility problem, as some may not want to move to a different geographic region or may view mobility as punishment.

The report listed several proposals to encourage SES mobility, including making prior career mobility a criterion for SES selection, requiring SES candidates to prove “multisector, multiagency or multifunctional experience,” investing in and testing a variety of mobility-promoting program designs, providing relocating executives with financial assistance and centralizing management of executive mobility in a single entity that could communicate, champion and coordinate agencies’ mobility initiatives.

Current or previous attempts “to spur executive movement -- including, notably, joint-duty programs at the Department of Defense and in the intelligence community -- have yet to make a governmentwide impact,” the report stated.

House Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., recently announced plans to sponsor legislation to encourage the federal government’s senior executives to be more mobile within the federal government. A Moran spokesperson said his legislation would also address SES recruitment and retention issues, reform the compensation system and increase career development.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has supported similar legislation in the past in the Senate, Senior Executives Association (SEA) President Carol Bonosaro said, and may do so again in the future.

SEA has been working on legislation that would address senior executives’ career development and pay and performance management, but Bonosaro said the group would oppose legislation that would make the rotations mandatory.

“[Rotations] need to be an option for agencies and not a requirement,” she said. The 1978 law’s “original intent was to empower agencies, not to bind them.”

The Partnership’s report was based on interviews and focus groups with about 100 political leaders, senior executives and human resources representatives from 39 agencies.

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