Wanted: A New Cadre of SES Free Agents
Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 envisioned a Senior Executive Service (SES) corps of talented individuals who would serve in leadership positions across the government.  But the SES corps today is chiefly composed of highly skilled professionals in specific mission functions, with relatively few having cross-agency expertise. In fact, data shows that only about eight percent of the roughly 7,700 SESers have ever moved outside their own agency.  However, recent trends in government have created a new demand for cross-agency capabilities. 

A report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, “Developing Senior Executive Capabilities to Address National Priorities” is intended to spark a discussion of how to create a cadre of experienced career senior executives who can lead major, cross-agency initiatives on national priorities.  The study is based on face-to-face interviews with over 25 SES members and thought leaders, an extensive literature review, a survey questionnaire with responses from over 50 SES executives, and online discussions. 

Report author and former federal executive Bruce Barkley outlines a practical, targeted approach for meeting this demand in the report. He recommends creating a new team of SES members—“a cadre of free agents not tied a particular agency”—who would work on cross-agency priorities. The report explains: “This group of top executive talent would be deployed where needed to respond to broad governmental and cross-cutting challenges. This cadre will consist of a corps of high-level executives with wide leadership experience, ideally public and private, to be commissioned to manage cross-agency priorities and coordination challenges.” 

Indeed, this subset of experienced SES members would be designated government-wide, cross-agency leaders, and could take on assignments involving multiple agencies focusing on common goals.  According to the report, “These SES executives would work to achieve broad program outcomes and best practices from a whole-government approach. That kind of cross-agency coordination is difficult to achieve now, given the predominant single-agency cultures and narrow agency silos.” 


These executives would be part of a new corporate executive management office under the direction of the President’s Management Council or another government-wide sponsor such as the Performance Improvement Council. "The Executive Branch needs more SES executives who can address and resolve whole- of-government prob­lems and priorities beyond their home agency missions," the report concludes.

The second part of the report offers a case study of how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs created a corporate senior executive management office to more effectively develop, manage, and deploy its senior executive corps department-wide.  This approach could be adapted either as a government-wide effort or by other major federal departments. 

To learn more, download “Developing Senior Executive Capabilities to Address National Priorities.”

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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