Competitive Service vs. Excepted Service: What’s the Difference?

What are the key differences between the federal government’s hiring authorities: Competitive Service, Excepted Service, and Senior Executive Service?

There are three types of services in the federal government, and how federal employees are hired into their jobs will vary depending on the hiring authorities that fall under each type of service.

According to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), these are the three types of hiring authorities and the differences between them:

Competitive Service

The Competitive Service consists of all civil service positions in the executive branch of the Federal Government with some exceptions which are defined in section 2102 of title 5, United States Code (5 U.S.C. 2102).

In the Competitive Service, individuals must go through a competitive hiring process (i.e., competitive examining) before being appointed which is open to all applicants. This process may consist of a written test, an evaluation of the individual’s education and experience, and/or an evaluation of other attributes necessary for successful performance in the position to be filled.

Competitive Service positions are subject to civil service laws passed by Congress to ensure that applicants and employees receive fair and equal treatment in the hiring process, hence the competitive aspect of the hiring process.

Competitive Service Status

Under the Competitive Service, a federal employee’s eligibility for noncompetitive assignment to a competitive position is referred to as his or her competitive status.

Competitive status is acquired by completion of a probationary period under a career-conditional or career appointment, or under a career executive assignment in the former executive assignment system, following open competitive examination, or by statute, Executive order, or the Civil Service rules, without open competitive examination. An individual with competitive status may be, without open competitive examination, reinstated, transferred, promoted, reassigned, or demoted, subject to conditions prescribed by the Civil Service rules and regulations.

Under the Competitive Service, Federal employees with competitive status may be considered for positions without having to compete with members of the general public in an open competitive process.

Excepted Service

Civil service appointments that fall under the Excepted Service are ones within the federal government that do not confer competitive status. There are a number of ways for federal employees to be appointed into the Excepted Service such as appointed under an authority defined by OPM as excepted (e.g., Veterans Recruitment Appointment) or being appointed to a position defined by OPM as excepted (e.g., Attorneys). More information can be found about excepted service in 5 U.S.C. 2103 and parts 213 and 302 of title 5 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

There are relatively few jobs that fall under Excepted Service as most federal jobs under the General Schedule are Competitive Service jobs.

As an example, the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is an Excepted Service Federal agency in the Legislative Branch. It is excepted from Competitive Service under the merit system in the Executive Branch administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) which means that the agency has its own hiring system based on merit, and has established its own evaluation criteria to fill position vacancies.

Excepted service positions are usually unique to an agency. The AOC says that it has adopted the qualification and classification standards for its positions as determined by OPM. Although the AOC has adopted most of these standards, the AOC, under its statutory authority, has also established unique qualification standards for certain positions.

In AOC’s case, it says that the general public can apply for most of its job vacancies and that there is usually not a requirement for candidates to have been previously employed by the federal government.

For most of its employees, the AOC applies the General Schedule and Wage Grade pay tables as established by OPM and the Department of Defense Civilian Personnel Advisory Service for setting salaries.

Senior Executive Service

The Senior Executive Service (SES) are the executives within the federal workforce selected for their leadership qualifications and charged with leading the continuing transformation of government. These leaders possess well-honed executive skills and share a broad perspective of government and a public service commitment which is grounded in the Constitution. The keystone of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, the SES was designed to be a corps of executives selected for their leadership qualifications.

Appointing Authorities and the Competitive Hiring Process

OPM also has a great deal of human resources and hiring information about appointing authorities federal agencies may use when hiring federal job applicants, regulatory guidance for hiring under the competitive process and other employment laws and regulations.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.