Federal Executive Ranks Get Ready for Reform

OMB and OPM Announce Changes to Senior Executive Service

“You are consistently asked to do more with less against a backdrop of heightened accountability for performance and too few professional development opportunities.” That’s the message from the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management to the 7,000 most senior career federal workers known as the Senior Executive Service.

In a memo sent today by Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients of OMB and Director John Berry of OPM, the administration details reforms to the SES in four areas: better engagement, career development, personnel performance management, and recruitment. Here’s a summary of the memo.

Better engagement

The White House will seek the views of the SES on key issues and there is a new requirement for agency leaders to set up SES forums within their agencies. The White House promises to work closely with agencies as the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 is implemented. The input of SES will be especially valuable on how to set cross-agency goals required by the new law.

Career development

There will be a new “onboarding” program for new SES members and a pilot project that allows high-potential staff just below the SES level to rotate across agencies. That should address an existing SES weakness—that the majority of members have spent their entire career in one agency. But tackling policy areas such as homelessness, climate change, or childhood obesity means working across departments. The new pilot should increase the number of SES recruits who come with multidepartment experience and that will improve policymaking skills across government.

Performance management

The SES performance appraisal system needs repair. There are marked differences in the way departments apply it. At the Department of Defense, for example, 29 percent of SES members are rated at the highest performance level while the U.S. Agency for International Development gives more than 80 percent the top performance mark. OMB and OPM promise to identify and implement best practices across agencies to address such differences. They also pledge to reduce the bureaucracy of the performance management system.


More than half of the SES may well retire in the next five years so recruitment is key for the future. OMB and OPM are promising to get agencies to work together in recruiting both from within and outside government. They are also committing to help increase the diversity of the SES. Only one-third of the SES are women and only one in six are minorities. The significant recruitment needs of the coming years are an opportunity to alter the demographics of the nation’s most senior civil servants to make them more representative of the country.

Reforms to the SES are hard to accomplish. There is considerable inertia and resistance to change in the system. OMB and OPM have worked closely with agencies in devising these reform plans, receiving input from more than 50 people from 19 agencies over nine months. Maintaining that buy-in will be crucial as the reforms move to the implementation phase.

The reforms announced today are an important step forward and OPM and OMB deserve credit for this progress. The Senior Executive Service is an important national asset that provides leadership in the federal government. The reforms announced today will help maintain and improve its effectiveness.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress working on the Doing What Works program.