Life in the SES: Star track or Star Trek?

It is heartwarming, thought-provoking and at the same time a tad nauseating to read and hear criticism of career federal executives who — due to a lack of mobility — are in a rut and probably aren’t giving taxpayers or their agencies their money’s worth.

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of politicians, think tanks and good-government groups have blasted/ridiculed members of the career Senior Executive Service because roughly half of them have been in the same job or agency since they joined the elite SES.

Say what? Excuse me! Come again.

The congressman who launched the drive against calcified career executives has served 10 terms and is running again for reelection. He wants to continue to represent the same congressional district, in the same city and the same state he has served for most of his adult life. Not that there is anything wrong with that! With all due respect, he has probably been parking in the same space on Capitol Hill for 20 years. A change vehicle he ain’t!


Thanks to gerrymandering, many members of the House of Representatives — once elected — have jobs for life. Their districts have been drawn so that they can’t lose. In the past, some politicians have even been reelected while in prison. Or after they died.

Think tankers, reporters, politicians and commentators who have jumped on or launched the shake-up-the-SES bandwagon may well have a little moss on their backsides too. (The last time I did anything different and daring was around 11 years ago. I can’t exactly remember what it was, save that it was innovative and for the good of mankind. Also I needed a change.)

The knock is that of the 7,000-plus members of the SES, only about half have changed jobs or agencies since moving up. The SES was the jewel in the crown of what was arguably the biggest achievement of the Carter administration: Civil Service Reform. Among other things, it eliminated Grades 16, 17 and 18 and replaced them with the SES, which was supposed to produce super- executives who were mobile and motivated by a higher-risk system that rewarded the best and weeded out persons unable to leap tall buildings in a single bound. So how’s that working out in your agency?

Mobility is great. Learning new things is great. Change is great. Unless …

The upwardly mobile executive becomes the agency’s whirling dervish, always on the move, sometimes blocking other people’s careers by being given what are temporary assignments — blocking others’ career progression — so they can punch a ticket and fill in a resume blank. Ask the military — or State Department types — how that goes. And those who suffer when the anointed ones are being pushed up the ladder via a series of temporary assignments where they learn just enough to be dangerous.

It has been a couple of weeks since the SES “improvement” campaign was launched. We covered it in depth. So have others. Here’s a thought: Next time you hear someone complaining about government executives being stuck in a rut, look who’s talking!

To reach me,


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