July 2017
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The Public Manager

The SES: A Linchpin in Executive Branch Reform

Monday, July 10, 2017

With political appointees slowly trickling into agency leadership positions, the career professionals in the Senior Executive Service face new challenges.


Under normal circumstances, career senior executives would play an important role in the implementation of an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directive that requires agencies to downsize their workforce, consolidate missions, and look for efficiencies and cost savings under every possible rock. But they would not take a lead role.

These are not normal circumstances.

When OMB Director Mick Mulvaney issued M-17-22, "Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce," on April 12, 2017, agencies began scrambling to figure out how to implement it. The problem? At many agencies, the senior political appointees who would normally lead the implementation of the OMB directive were not yet in place. Even as they trickled on board, they had a steep learning curve to overcome.

The learning curve for appointees in government is always steep, but bringing fresh eyes and fresh thinking to old challenges can be beneficial. Developing agency reform plans consistent with M-17-22 will provide a crucible for determining whether political and career leaders can build mutual trust and bridge the divide between near-term policy objectives and long-term organizational needs.

The Management section of the president's "skinny budget" and Appendices B-D of M-17-22 provide a framework for career and political leaders alike to ask tough questions and think big thoughts that have the potential to drive their organizations to streamline and update to best serve the public in the 21st century.

A Tough Assignment

Director Mulvaney's directive presents both an opportunity and a challenge for career senior executives. With the status quo thoroughly shaken up, career staff have a unique opportunity to step in and fulfill one of the core purposes of the Senior Executive Service (SES)—navigating tumultuous political waters with the steady, consistent leadership and institutional expertise necessary to deliver an agency reform plan to OMB by September 2017. The challenge is to deliver a reform plan that is consistent with the policy objectives of the Trump administration. Achieving this consistency is normally the role of senior political leadership.

There are some encouraging signs that the administration understands the vital role senior executives play in this process. In an interview with Government Executive, OMB Senior Adviser Linda Springer said, We are operating under the notion that the career civil servants know better than almost anyone, because they live with this day in and day out, and they experience the challenges of doing their work. So from the standpoint of how things can run better, or whether or not what they're doing is used or has value, I think they are right on the front lines."

This is obviously a tough assignment for many career senior executives, who have not been privy to the Trump administration's discussions about how agency reform plans fit within larger policy objectives, such as tax, immigration, or healthcare reform. These are complex policy initiatives that involve multiple agencies and that cross different congressional authorization and appropriation boundaries, presenting a daunting challenge, even under more generous timelines.

Take, for example, an agency like the Department of Homeland Security. With 22 operating units, a $50 billion budget, and more than 200,000 employees scattered across the country, DHS is immensely complex. Or consider the $1.1 trillion Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which has more than 100 major programs, including behemoths like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), each of which represents its own tangle of constituent offices and programs.

Any new senior political leader who steps into the reform process and who has little or no experience with the agency or program with which they have been entrusted must, by necessity, rely on career senior leadership for advice and counsel. This is where career senior executives can demonstrate that they have both the policy and programmatic skills required to deliver a reform plan that will both meet OMB's objectives for efficient and effective operations and support the administration's policy objectives.

Case in Point

Consider the federal government's research and development (R&D) enterprise, a $140 billion complex consisting of more than 600 national laboratories and providing funding to hundreds of universities and most major corporations involved in science and technology innovation. This massive enterprise is primarily managed by eight agencies—Department of Defense, NASA, NIH, Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, and Department of Education. A number of other agencies (such as the Department of Transportation and the Smithsonian Institution) also are involved.

Under normal circumstances, the eight agencies would be friendly rivals in the annual budget battles. They would work individually as agencies with their OMB examiners and appropriations staff to argue for the resources that would keep their labs running and their scientists occupied. There was no need for R&D agencies to work collaboratively on budgets because the practice was to silo budget discussions within agencies.

M-17-22 has turned the friendly rivals equation on its head, because the Trump administration has made it clear that big changes are coming in energy and environmental policy, particularly climate change policy. Those policies are heavily influenced by R&D investments, and affected agencies know that business as usual won't pass the sniff test.

When developing budget justifications, agencies affected by the Trump administration's new policy initiatives would be advised to work together to rationalize resources. And, they will increasingly need to rely on and be able to produce demonstrable program outcomes, not simply outputs.

The administration's focus on effectiveness, efficiency, impact, and performance is not new to government, echoing taxpayers' perspective that money sent to Uncle Sam should be well spent. Career senior executives must take advantage of this opportunity to provide leadership that channels change in a productive direction for their organizations, staffs, and, most importantly, for the U.S. taxpayer.

Guidance and Support

Fortunately, there is no need to reinvent the wheel because there are structures in place to develop agency reform plans. The administration has stated its intent to leverage many existing processes and protocols to drive agency reform and workforce reduction initiatives. These processes are hard wired into the executive branch through legislation such as the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act (GPRAMA), the congressional appropriations cycle, and OMB directives (A-11, A-76, A-123, and so on).

Per GPRAMA, for example, every federal agency has four to six strategic goals that are determined by agency political and career leadership and align with the administration's priorities. Moreover, cross-agency priority goals provide a framework for interagency collaboration on issues of mutual interest, a key focus area for an administration seeking synergies and efficiencies.

Agencies are required to publicly post quarterly progress updates on Performance.gov, outlining efforts to meet their strategic goals, which also form the basis for agency-wide strategic plans, performance plans, and budgets. Agencies are working toward the administration's first chance for full-year agency budget proposals for FY19, which are due to OMB in September 2017 and will be submitted to Congress as the president's budget in February 2018.


Improved understanding of the policy priorities of the administration and senior political leaders will inform career executives in their efforts to develop strategies for meeting the workforce reduction and performance maximization components of the OMB directive. The administration has asked agencies for an honest assessment of their mission requirements and the composition of the workforce needed to accomplish that mission.

Enter Career Executives

Agencies must take a hard look at their workforces to find those staffing functions that are duplicative, obsolete, or have a diminished priority under the Trump administration's agenda. This is where the experience of career leadership will prove most valuable, with career officials best positioned to understand where the mission-critical staff needs are and to make honest judgments about where to make cuts.

Traditionally, agencies have reduced head count through several standard processes: buy-out programs that encourage employees not yet eligible for retirement to leave federal service early (VERA/VSIP) and reductions in force. Those instruments require long planning horizons and are best used in conjunction with workforce analytics. Unfortunately, M-17-22 does not allow for that long planning horizon, and many agencies are only now gearing up their workforce analytics capabilities. Further complicating workforce planning is OMB guidance that discourages trading career staff reductions for contractors.

Most federal civilian agencies lack robust talent management systems. Such systems enable a comprehensive, management-level perspective on all things human capital, including staff requirements, overall staffing costs, succession planning, performance management, training and development, and recruitment and hiring. Because of this absence of robust talent management systems, career executives will need to engage with peers across the executive branch to learn lessons and identify best practices in talent management to meet the requirements of the OMB directive. (See the sidebar for an example of how the U.S. Air Force uses talent management effectively.)

This is perhaps the most encouraging aspect of M-17-22. The pot is certainly being stirred, but it is forcing federal leaders to break out of their silos and look for best practices. Adopting these best practices can only increase government efficiency and effectiveness, which, after all, is a shared goal of everyone who believes that the federal government should adopt 21st-century business practices and nurture a modern workforce that is responsive to the needs of the U.S. taxpayer.

Talent Management Helps USAF Soar

One positive example of the effective use of talent management is the U.S. Air Force, which employs a disciplined systems engineering approach to talent management that allows USAF leadership not only to understand costs associated with the workforce, but also to plot out career progression and build a workforce that can meet current and future needs.

Todd Fore, assistant deputy chief of staff, manpower, personnel and services for USAF, explains that the Air Force defines talent as the collective set of knowledge, skills, abilities, experience, and potential individuals or groups can provide to meet organizational goals or objectives.

“Talent management is defined as an integrated set of human capital management processes designed to ensure mission objectives are met by optimizing the productivity, value, and potential of an organization's greatest asset—its people,” he says.

The USAF refers to those integrated processes collectively as the Talent Management Life Cycle, which is made up of six interconnected and interdependent efforts:

  • talent planning
  • acquisition
  • development and utilization
  • evaluation
  • compensation and retention
  • transition.

“The output of the Talent Management Life Cycle is Airmen that enable unrivaled airpower for our nation; without them, our weapons systems are useless,” says Fore. Foundational to the life cycle are a number of cross-cutting and enabling capabilities, such as IT systems, data analytics, and performance metrics, as well as efforts to ensure total force integration.
“The benefit of our Talent Management Life Cycle is it enables us to develop exceptional leaders, whereby we are able to realize cost effective modernization, increase agility, and drive innovation for the future,” says Fore.

About the Author

Bill Valdez is president of the Senior Executive Association (SEA). He sets SEA’s overall strategic direction and is focused on strengthening the Senior Executive Service (SES) through legislative and policy initiatives, building a leadership pipeline for the Executive Branch, and establishing SEA as a thought leader in the Washington, D.C., policy debates that impact all civil service employees.

Bill retired from federal service as a career Senior Executive in July 2014. His career with the U.S. Department of Energy spanned more than 20 years and he has extensive knowledge in the areas of R&D portfolio analysis and evaluation, energy/environmental technologies and policies, small business development, supply chain analysis, science and engineering workforce development, budget planning and execution, diversity and equal opportunity issues, science policy, human capital processes and policies, procurement processes and policies, corporate and strategic planning, and contract management.

Bill is an Adjunct Faculty at American University’s School of Public Affairs, where he specializes in Federal government evaluation and strategic planning and is a co-editor of “The Handbook of Federal Government Leadership and Administration,” which was published in November 2016.

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