Shuffling the SES deck

Career civil servants: Who’s the most important (after you) in your office, branch, agency or department?

The answer is, it’s probably your boss. Maybe your immediate supervisor, maybe the Senior Executive Service official who runs your part of the operation. Political appointees come and go (average work life span is 18 months), but career SES people can be forever.

Several members of Congress think the SES has gone stale. That it isn’t living up to its promise (or promises) because only about half its 7,000- plus career people have experience in more than one agency. Some good-government groups agree.

In the late 1970s, Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull wrote a book called “The Peter Principle.” It was supposed to be funny, but with a message. Which, in a nutshell, is that “in hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” In other words, a great scientist (or an expert in his or her field) is promoted and becomes a lousy manager. Then stays in that job meaning the organization has lost a great employee and found a lousy boss.


(As one who hasn’t been promoted in years I have mixed emotions about this theory. But I digress …)

So, does the SES deck need to be shuffled? And, if so, how often? Can agencies realistically be expected to hand off their best and brightest to another agency? Or do they propose people they want to get rid of for promotion and transfer?

Consider this comment from a fed who was around when the SES was created. She says:

I don’t know what prompted Congress to think SES would be a good idea, but at the time they started it, there was a very popular management theory that taught that good managers should be able to get good results no matter what business they were managing. This led to the disastrous spectacle of companies acquiring other companies about which they knew nothing. The only example I can cite, but there are many others, is RCA’s acquisition of Banquet Foods, Random House publishing, Hertz car rental, Coronet carpets, etc. plus an ill-considered foray into the computer field to compete with IBM. The only accomplishment of all the fevered activity was GE’s takeover of RCA in the mid-80s. Once a management fad takes hold, it can take years for it to be replaced and the damage repaired.

I worked for RCA for a decade while all this acquisition was going on. RCA sent me to college to get a degree in business administration. I wrote a couple of papers about the folly of buying companies about which they knew nothing. We studied the then-current Japanese business methods which seemed to me to be fine for Japan, and later, after I joined NASA, we had to put up with TQM (total quality management) and a couple of other fads.

At the time SES was instituted, I was close to an associate administrator at Goddard Space Flight Center. He told me, so few people volunteered for SES that NASA basically shanghaied senior civil servants and told them they would be SES or else. Until his death in 1984 he complained bitterly about what a lousy idea it was.

The shoemaker should stick to his last. I retired from NASA in in 2003. As far as I know none of the SES people, at least at Goddard Space Flight Center, ever worked at any other agencies. It takes very specialized education and years of experience to succeed in the space business. None of this education and experience would be a good fit with any other agency. To even try would be a waste of time all around.

Just my two cents. E.J.


By Jack Moore

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