The SES Program: Yesterday and Today

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 changed the SES. A new report outlines changes in SES membership. One career field is up 542.6%.

The Partnership for Public Service has just released a report on the federal workforce’s senior executive service (SES), analyzing data from the past 25 years. The organization examined the size, demographics, and trends of the SES.   

What is the SES and Why Was it Created?

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) was designed to improve the federal workforce’s efficiency, accountability, and professionalism.

The CSRA was enacted after a vigorous campaign by President Jimmy Carter (often accompanied by the National President of AFGE, Ken Blaylock). In his campaign, Carter stressed that he would reform the civil service which was thought to be less respected and, perhaps, less competent after political scandals such as Watergate. The union’s objective was to get the federal labor relations program into a law instead of an executive order. An executive order could be deleted by a new president while changing the law can be much more difficult.

A main goal of the CSRA was to create a responsive, merit-based senior executive service (SES), consisting of the top-level managers and leaders in the federal government. The SES was intended to be a corps of highly qualified, motivated executives implementing the president’s and Congressional policies and programs.

To meet these goals, the CSRA substantially changed the SES. These changes included:

  • Establishing a new system of recruitment, selection, and development based on merit and executive qualifications.
  • Creating a performance appraisal system that linked pay and awards to individual and organizational results.
  • Providing greater flexibility and mobility for executives to move across agencies and assignments.
  • Enhancing the accountability and discipline of executives for poor performance or misconduct.
  • Reducing the number of political appointees and ensuring their compatibility with career executives.

The CSRA also created agencies and systems to oversee and support the SES:

  • In place of the Civil Service Commission (CSC) the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) oversees the administration and management of the civil service, including the SES.
  • The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) was set up to adjudicate appeals and complaints from federal employees, including SES members, instead of appeals being filed with an organization inside of the CSC.
  • Creating a new Senior Executive Service Performance Review Board (PRB) to review and evaluate the performance ratings and awards of SES members.
  • Setting a new pay scale and system for the SES, with six levels ranging from ES-1 to ES-6, and a cap at Level II of the Executive Schedule.
  • Allowing agencies to establish their own pay systems for the SES, subject to approval by OPM and oversight by MSPB.
  • Establishing a new rank award system for the SES, with two ranks: Distinguished Executive and Meritorious Executive.
  • Providing special benefits and incentives for the SES, such as travel, transportation, leave, retirement, and severance pay.

Were Changes to the SES a Success or Failure?

Did the changes made to the SES make a major difference in the federal government? Were the SES changes a success or a failure?

The reality is changing a large bureaucracy like the federal government is very difficult. This report from the Partnership for Public Service does not attempt to answer the question of whether the revised SES system was a success, a failure, or a mixture of both. The report does delve into a statistical description of SES members.

The success or failure of the SES is important. This cadre of federal leaders can presumably determine or heavily influence how the federal workforce is perceived by the public and how successfully policies of the administration and laws passed by Congress will be implemented. Unfortunately, at this time, there does not appear to be significant faith or trust in the federal government by the American public.

A recent poll indicated that 72% of all Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. There was a significant difference in party affiliation in answering this question. 91% of Republicans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, 55% of Democrats have a similar opinion and 71% of independent voters hold this opinion.

Another poll had roughly similar results in the public’s trust in our federal government.

As has been the case for more than a decade, the public’s trust in the federal government to do what is right remains historically low. Today, just 17% of adults say they trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%). A large majority (71%) says they trust the government “only some of the time”; 10% volunteer that they never trust the federal government.

Little Public Support for Reductions in Federal Spending | Pew Research Center

SES Workforce by the Numbers

There are two types of SES positions: career and non-career. Career SES employees are the top level of career civil service positions. Non-career SES are a version of a political appointment. Career SES employees are the most numerous. Non-career SES are limited by law to 10% or less of the total. 

Total SES Members and Racial Composition

The total number of SES members in the federal government has grown from 6,846 in 1998 to 8,222 in 2022. The percentage of SES to career workforce has remained constant at just over 0.4% from 1998 to 2022.

In the government today, race and gender often appear to be the primary issues of concern. The Biden administration has gone to great lengths to emphasize the importance of racial issues in its policies and programs. It also wants more data on “underserved communities”—presumably to provide more preferences for these groups.

The changing composition of the SES workforce in this regard is no different from the rest of government in how it is changing. In 1998, 20.1% of SES employees were female. By 2022, 37.6% of SES members were women. In 2007, just 16% of career SES identified as people of color. By 2022, this number had risen to 24.7%. 

The number of white federal SES employees has decreased from 83.9% in 2007 to 75.1% in 2022. The “people of color” category has increased from 16% in 2007 to 24.7% in 2022. The starting year of 2007 was used in the data analysis as “Data from OPM on race and ethnicity demographics become publicly available in fiscal year 2007.”

These SES data are consistent with other data showing that white federal employees are receiving small salary increases and that their number in the federal workforce is shrinking. This result is, presumably, due to the success of policies of the Biden and Obama administrations to focus on hiring and promoting non-white employees.

Age, Length of Service, and Geographic Location

In 1998, 11.5% of SES members were at least 60 years old, and 58% were between 50-59. In 2022, career SES members 60 and over had gone up to 26.6%. Those in their 50s still made up a majority of the SES.  

We would anticipate SES members have worked in government longer since those in these leadership positions have often worked their way up through the civil service system through decades-long careers. That is the case as well as the expectation.

In 1998, about 29.6% of career SES had served between 20-29 years. By 2022, the percentage of career SES that had served between 25-29 years had dropped to 13.9%, as the percentage of those who had served 35 years or more went up.

80% of the full-time, nonseasonal permanent federal workforce works outside of the Washington, DC region. For career SES employees, that is not the case.

From 1998 to 2022, about 70% of career SES members worked in the D.C. area. While the CSRA allowed transferring SES members “to any Senior Executive Service position in the same agency for which the appointee is qualified”—presumably to where they were most needed to implement policies—there has been little change in geographic location for the SES. In 1998, 72.4% of SES members were in the DC area. By 2022, this total was reduced to 71.%. The most significant change in this was under President Trump when the number of SES located in Washington, DC was temporarily reduced to 68.3%.

Agency Employment of SES Members

In 1998, 96.2% of SES members worked in Cabinet-level agencies or large independent agencies. In 2022, this percentage increased slightly to 97.4%.

The distribution of career SES employees has shifted. The Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002 and the new agency absorbed subcomponents from other agencies. In 2003, shortly after its creation, DHS employed 3.4% of career SES members. By 2022, 9.2% of career SES members were working at Homeland Security.

Career SES employees also increased at the Department of Veterans Affairs—from 4.2% to 5.7%, and the Department of Labor went from 1.9% to 2.4% of SES members, a 24.7% change.

Other Cabinet agencies have seen a decrease in the percentage of total career SES in the past 25 years. The Department of Defense experienced a 26.8% decrease in its share of career SES members. It went from a total of 6.6% in 1998 to 4.9% of SES members in 2022.

Occupational Changes in SES

The largest growth in occupations in the SES has been in the Information Technology occupational series. According to the report, “In 2002—the first year for which there is data—just 0.5% of career SES worked in this occupational series. In 2022, it jumped to 3.4%, an increase of 542.6%.”

At the other end of the spectrum, physical scientists were only 2.4% of career SES in 2022. This is a decrease of 64.4%.

The General Administrative, Clerical, and Office Services occupational series has been the largest occupational series among career SES for 25 years. The percentage of career SES in this occupational series has steadily increased despite the total workforce in these occupations dropping from 21.2% in 1998 to 14.7% in 2022. 

Program Management is the most common occupation for career SES members.

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