White House Suspends Presidential Rank Awards for Senior Executives

The White House has halted the presidential rank awards-the highest awards for federal civil service employees.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 was passed with great fanfare back in 1978. When it was signed into law by President Carter, he said: “History will regard the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 as one of the most important laws enacted by this Congress.” Perhaps that is the case but much what was in the law has been cast aside.

Among the changes in the new 1978 law cited by President Carter:

  • It established a Senior Executive Service and was to base the pay of executives and senior managers on the quality of their performance.
  • It provided a more method for evaluating individual performance.
  • It was intended to give managers more flexibility and more authority to hire, motivate, reward, and discipline employees to ensure that the public’s work gets done. At the same time, it provides better protection for employees against arbitrary actions and abuses and contains safeguards against political intrusion.

The Senior Executive Service still exists but there is little doubt that the concept of a evaluating individual performance with a meaningful impact on pay and promotions based on the performance rating has largely fallen by the wayside. And, along with the failure of the high ideals of evaluating individual employee performance, the concept that managers had more flexibility, more authority to hire, motivate, reward and discipline employees to create a more effective and efficient workforce has also reverted to the way the system often operated before the 1978 law was passed.

What about the idea of basing “the pay of executives and senior managers on the quality of their performance”?

Much of that has also now gone into the dustbin of history.

I had the pleasure of attending a couple of ceremonies honoring senior executives as an invited spouse. President George H.W. Bush gave out many of the awards at a dignified ceremony in Washington. The recipients often had family or close friends attending for the “best of the best” of the federal civil service. It was a big deal in theory and in fact. Most federal employees do not come into contact with the President of the United States and he was giving these folks an award and a big check. It meant a great deal to the executives and all of us were pleased to be part of the federal community in some way.

In addition, to the ceremony, there was a dinner in honor of the executives. I doubt it was a lavish as some that are given to Members of Congress or even some dinners described recently given at conferences where federal agencies spent millions of dollars. It was dignified, it honored some of the nation’s most successful civil servants, it rewarded and recognized the hard work put in by the small number selected for the honor,  most of whom had spent an entire career working for the federal government, and I have no doubt that it provided the motivation for these successful federal employees as intended by the Civil Service Reform Act.

The ceremony and the financial recognition may now also relegated to history. According to the Wall Street Journal, The White House plans to temporarily suspend the rewards program for senior federal employees for distinguished service.

As many readers know, the presidential rank awards are considered the nation’s highest award for civil service and are offered once each year to officials throughout the federal government.  The decision not to make any awards is being blamed on budget constraints. In 2012, 122 civil-service executives were presented with the awards which were often ranging from 25% – 35% of their salaries. No more than one percent of the career Senior Executive Service corps can receive the Distinguished Executive Rank Award in a given year. The Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Executive is second-highest annual award given to selected career SES members. This award may be given to no more than 5% of the members of the SES in any given year. Meritorious Rank Award recipients receive 20 percent of basic pay.

It is not obvious what impact the suspension of the awards program will have. With furloughs and a salary freeze impacting most of the federal workforce, some federal employees might have resented the awards being made because of the large bonus payments. Of course, the intention of the system was to create a more accountable and effective government that runs more efficiently.  Stopping the bonus payments could have the effect of  urging some of the most senior people in government to retire or to seek out employment in the private sector at a time when many of the “baby boomers” are now retiring.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47