Agencies should be developing next generation of Senior Executive Service, study says

A few years ago, Verron "Ron" Brade led a move to change the way technical employees at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center move up from doing the work to supervising the workers.

Key to preparing the Clarksville resident to lead the effort, he said, was NASA's Senior Executive Service development program. Brade received his SES appointment in 2010, and said he now does a better job as director of the Office of Human Capital Management at the center in Greenbelt.


In the coming years, the government's senior executives — top-tier career federal employees — could leave in droves. But the authors of a new report say most federal agencies are not doing enough to prepare their potential replacements.

"Senior agency leaders, the top political and career leaders, pay insufficient attention to identifying, developing, recruiting and selecting talent for the SES," the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the management consultants McKinsey & Co. concluded in the report released last week.


Of the approximately 7,100 senior executives in the federal government, almost two-thirds will be eligible to retire within five years. But the report's authors found no government-wide effort to take charge of career development.

"The most critical finding is there is not a central enterprise approach for growing and developing this critical cohort," said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Washington-based partnership, which encourages careers in federal government.

Agencies with a substantial presence in the Baltimore-Washington area are among those with a large number of SES retirements looming.

Of the 136 senior executives in the Social Security Administration, 69 percent will be retirement-eligible within five years. Of the 376 in the Department of Health and Human Services, about 54 percent will be.

Although most agencies lack soup-to-nuts programs for grooming future senior executives, Stier said that "just about everything that should be happening in the federal government is happening somewhere."

A productive program in one agency could be replicated in another, he said.

During Brade's year and a half in the NASA program, he shadowed top agency leaders not only at NASA, but also at the Department of Treasury. He said the experiences showed him how to put into practice the upper-level leadership skills he was learning.

"It helped by giving me insight into how they fulfill their responsibilities," he said. "I felt I could do that."


Bonnie Doyle, associate commissioner for personnel at the Social Security Administration, said the Woodlawn-based agency has established "a very comprehensive overarching leadership development structure." It begins with programs that help lower-level employees move up and continues through recruiting and developing senior executives.

"We put our folks in a much more comprehensive and executive-level program than what a lot of other agencies do," Doyle said.

Participants are required to complete temporary, top-level assignments outside the Social Security Administration; some have gone to the corporate officers of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co., the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The report's authors recommend that the federal government prioritize the development of candidates for senior executive positions, with a plan that ensures that some are ready and others on the rise. They suggest simplifying the application and hiring process, and looking more at possible hires not only outside an agency, but outside the government.

The Office of Management and Budget, they say, "could assume central responsibility" for developing a pipeline for senior executives, with support of the President's Management Council and collaborate with the Office of Personnel Management to encourage agencies to identify, recruit and train candidates.

Stephen Shih, deputy associate director for SES and performance management policy at OPM, said his office can implement standards for recruiting and developing senior executives, and provide oversight and related help for agencies. He said the office has added online courses and is working on developing training programs that agencies can customize.


Some agencies, including the Defense Department, IRS and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have made progress, the report's authors said. They pointed to aspects of NASA's program that Brade said made a difference: the first-hand experiences, the networking — and networking skills — and better use of employee feedback that resulted.

They noted that NASA asks employees who take part in those programs for feedback on the value of what they're learning, and asks their supervisors about those employees' job performance.

Brade analyzed employee feedback about a one-week leadership course and was troubled by the dissatisfaction participants were expressing.

He researched information on efficient and successful adult learning and led a redesign of the program. Out went the weeklong course, to be replaced by a series of one- and two-day classes followed by mentoring and coaching that took the book-learning to the working world.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said the recent report, "to some degree … is like measuring for new drapes while the house is burning down."

She said "a good many of the most talented people have no interest in the Senior Executive Service."


In a 2010 survey of 12,000 upper-level supervisors, her organization found many believed that the pay bump isn't worth the extra workload and responsibility or the risk of being moved, especially to a high-cost city when there's no locality adjustment in salary.

Bonosaro said that you can develop the best programs to develop future top-tier government leaders, but "if you don't have the best people moving through that pipeline, in the end it will not amount to very much."