Senior Executive Service

Chapter 8: Section 9

The Senior Executive Service (SES) covers most managerial, supervisory, and policy positions in the Executive Branch above grade GS-15, except those that require Senate confirmation. The SES is a system in which salary and career status are personal rather than dependent on the position occupied. There are two main types of SES positions: career-reserved (which must be filled by career appointees) and general (which may be filled by career or non-career appointees, or by limited-term or limited emergency appointees). The number of non-career executives is limited by law to 10 percent of the total SES allocation.

Most agencies have SES members. By law, however, certain agencies and classes of employees are excluded from SES provisions. These include the Foreign Service, Federal Aviation Administration, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, some government corporations, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, and certain financial regulatory agencies. Many of them have senior executive corps whose policies largely parallel those of the SES.

5 CFR 534 subpart D prescribes the rules for setting and adjusting rates of basic pay and granting awards to SES members. The agencies’ plans may establish policies on the minimum increase in pay that may be offered to current employees upon initial appointment to the SES.

Pay adjustments for SES members must be based on individual performance and/or contribution to the agency’s performance. Agencies may consider such things as unique skills, qualifications, or competencies and their significance to the agency’s mission, as well as current responsibilities. Under 5 CFR 430, an agency’s highest-performing senior employees receive the largest pay adjustments and/or highest pay levels (including both basic pay and performance awards), particularly above the rate for level III of the Executive Schedule. Agencies must provide for transparency in the processes for making pay decisions. For example, agencies may consider communicating the overall results of performance management decisions to senior employees, if individual confidentiality can be assured.

The system features a single pay range from a minimum of 120 percent of the base General Schedule (not including locality pay) grade 15, step 1, to a maximum that is either Level III or Level II of the Executive Schedule. The higher Level II cap applies in agencies whose performance appraisal systems make “meaningful distinctions based on relative performance,” as certified by the Office of Personnel Management, with concurrence by the Office of Management and Budget. Most agencies have that certification.

Under 5 U.S.C. 5307, in agencies with such a certification, the total compensation cap (comprising base salary, plus premium pay, performance bonuses for career SES members, and certain other allowances and incentives, but excluding certain other forms of compensation) also is higher—the rate of the Vice President’s salary, versus Executive Schedule Level I for agencies without certification.

Under 5 U.S.C. 5307(d), an agency’s senior executive performance appraisal system must be certified on a calendar year basis.

See Aggregate Limit on Compensation in Section 2 of Chapter 1 for details of the certification procedure and what forms of compensation are counted toward the total compensation cap.

Determining Pay

Upon an initial appointment to an SES position, an agency may set the rate of basic pay at any rate within the applicable range, taking into account factors such as performance, unique skills or competencies, and their significance to the agency’s mission, as well as the responsibilities. Rates of basic pay higher than the rate for Level III of the Executive Schedule up to the rate for Level II of the Executive Schedule generally are reserved for executives who have demonstrated the highest levels of individual performance and/or made the greatest contributions to agency performance, as determined by the agency through its performance appraisal system for senior executives or, in the case of newly appointed senior executives, those who possess superior leadership or other competencies, consistent with the agency’s strategic human capital plan.

For example, rates of pay higher than the rate for level III of the Executive Schedule may be reserved for a senior executive with an exceptionally meritorious accomplishment, for one who is assigned to a position with substantially greater scope and responsibility, or for one who is critical to the mission of the agency. In all cases, setting pay above the rate for level III of the Executive Schedule must be approved by the agency head or designee.

Note: Under Executive Order 13714 of 2015, in setting initial salaries and pay increases, agencies may consider the salary of General Schedule subordinates, including their locality pay, to assure that the executive’s rate is higher. This consideration involves only GS employees who directly report to the executive and applies to the executive’s basic pay rate, independent of any retention incentive or other incentive payment. See a June 28, 2016 memo at www.chcoc.gov/transmittals. Agencies must establish timelines for communicating performance plans, conducting appraisals, and assigning and communicating annual summary ratings. Five rating levels are required; quotas on how many of an agency’s executives may receive a given rating are banned by 5 U.S.C. 4312(b)(2). Standards for performance management systems must use critical elements based on OPM-determined qualifications (see Executive Core Qualifications in Section 3 of this chapter), and allow for incorporating technical qualifications.

Agencies are responsible for developing any additional agency-specific requirements. They are to be clear on how the requirements will be measured, make executives aware of those methods, and make sure that such requirements are within the area of responsibility and control of the executive.

Agencies may assign differing weights to each of the qualifications, except that each must be worth at least 5 percent of the overall rating, and the “results driven” standard must be worth at least 20 percent. Scores for each critical element are multiplied by the weight of each critical element, added together to determine a summary rating.

As a senior executive, you are entitled to have the initial rating reviewed by a higher level official who did not participate in the initial rating before that rating is presented to the performance review board. That reviewer may recommend a different rating. The board must review and evaluate the initial appraisal and summary rating, your response and any recommendation by a higher-level reviewer, and conduct any additional review necessary to make written recommendations to the appointing authority on annual summary ratings, bonuses and pay adjustments.

Those performance appraisals and ratings may not be appealed. However, you may file a complaint about any aspect of the rating process you believe involves unlawful discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a prohibited personnel practice to the Office of Special Counsel. If you are a career appointee who is being removed from the SES, you are entitled to an informal hearing before an official designated by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Subject to a one-year prohibition in 5 U.S.C. 5382(c) on reducing your rate of basic pay, your agency may reduce your rate of basic pay for performance and/or disciplinary reasons by up to 10 percent. Any pay reduction may be appealed to the head of the agency, whose decision is final. You will not suffer a reduction in pay by reason of a transfer from an agency where pay is allowable up to the Level II rate to one where pay is subject to the Level III rate cap or as a result of a decision to suspend certification of the applicable performance appraisal system.

Break in Service—Upon reappointment to the SES following a break in SES service, an agency may set your rate of basic pay at any rate within the SES rate range if the break was more than 30 days. If the break was 30 days or less, your rate of basic pay must be at least equivalent to your former rate.

Twelve-Month Rule—Generally, your agency may increase or reduce your rate of basic pay not more than once in any 12-month period. The setting of pay upon initial appointment or reappointment to the SES and adjusting an SES rate of basic pay are considered pay adjustments for this purpose. However, under 5 U.S.C. 534.404(c)(4), an agency may approve an increase in your rate of basic pay more than once during a 12-month period when the head of an agency or designee determines that an additional increase is warranted: for an exceptionally meritorious accomplishment; when you are reassigned to a position with substantially greater scope and responsibility; if you are critical to the mission of the agency and would be likely to leave the agency in the absence of a pay increase; or to align you with the agency’s senior executive appraisal and pay adjustment cycle (for example, in the case of a senior executive who was appointed to an SES position within the past 12 months or a senior executive who was transferred to an SES position from an agency with a different senior executive appraisal and pay adjustment cycle within the past 12 months).

Note: An appointment into the SES is subject to a probationary period; see Candidate Assessment and Probation in Section 1 of this chapter.

Awards and Bonuses

Federal agencies use various awards and bonuses to reward members of the SES for outstanding performance and to recruit, retain, and relocate employees:

Performance Awards—Agencies may award a lump-sum payment of between 5 percent and 20 percent of basic pay to career members (but not to political members) of the SES to recognize their excellent performance over a one-year period. The total amount awarded cannot exceed 10 percent of the total base pay for the agency’s career SES members for the prior year.

Awards for Special Acts—An agency or the President may reward members of the SES for special acts, suggestions, or inventions that improve the functioning of the federal government. Those awards range from $10,000 to $25,000.

Rank Awards—The President may make two types of awards to career members of the SES who demonstrate consistently excellent performance over an extended period. The Distinguished Executive award provides a lump-sum payment of 35 percent of the recipient’s base pay. No more than 1 percent of SES members may receive that award. The Meritorious Executive award, given to no more than 5 percent of SES members, provides a lump-sum payment of 20 percent of the recipient’s base pay. See Incentive Awards and Payments in Chapter 1, Section 4.

Recruitment, Relocation, and Retention Incentives—Senior executives are eligible for recruitment, relocation and retention incentives under generally the same terms as other employees. See Recruitment, Relocation and Retention Payments in Chapter 1, Section 5.

Executive Order 13714 of 2015 set a limit on performance awards for Senior Executive Service (and for senior level and senior scientific and technical) employees at 7.5 percent of an agency’s aggregate spending for such employees and directed agencies to provide meaningfully greater rewards to top performers. Later guidance further encouraged agencies to use all authorized categories of awards to recognize accomplishments of their executives throughout the year regardless of their overall rating levels. See Incentive Payments and Awards in Chapter 1, Section 4.

Other Policies

Disciplinary Policies—A one-year probationary period typically is required after appointment to the SES. Agencies have the authority to immediately remove you as a probationary SES member from the SES for performance reasons on providing written notice. A formal performance rating is not required, and you do not have an appeal right.

After the probationary period: if you are rated “unsatisfactory,” you must be reassigned, transferred or removed from the SES; and if you are assigned two ratings in the lowest two levels within three years, or two ratings at the bottom level in five years, you must be demoted from the SES. This allows you to remain in federal service but no longer as a part of the SES—you are generally guaranteed a position in the agency at a GS-15 level or above, and are paid at the highest of: that position’s current pay rate; your former SES rate; or the rate you were paid before joining the SES. (Note: If eligible, you may elect discontinued service retirement.) A 30-day notice period is required.

As a senior executive, you may not be removed for performance reasons within 120 days of the appointment of a new agency head (or a new supervisor, if that person has removal authority over you and is a political appointee) unless the removal is based on a performance rating that was given prior to the start of that period.

If you are removed from the SES for performance reasons, you may request an informal hearing before the Merit Systems Protection Board but the hearing does not constitute a formal appeal and need not delay the action.

In addition to removal from the SES for reasons relating to performance as a manager, as a career senior executive, you can be disciplined for: misconduct; neglect of duty; malfeasance; failure to accept a directed reassignment; or failure to accompany a position in a transfer of function. Penalties can include reduction in pay, suspensions lasting more than 14 days and removal from the federal service. If the agency takes one of these actions, you may appeal to the MSPB under standard “adverse action” appeal policies.

Department of Veterans Affairs—P.L. 115-41 of 2017 created separate policies for the Veterans Affairs Department to reprimand, suspend, involuntarily reassign, demote or remove from the SES a senior executive on grounds of performance or conduct, including neglect of duty, malfeasance or failure to accept a directed reassignment or to accompany a position in a transfer of function. Individuals have the right to advance notice of the action and a file containing all evidence in support of the action, the right to representation and the right to respond within seven days of the notice. A final decision must be in writing, include the specific reasons, and be issued within 15 business days of the notice. The individual may then appeal to an internal grievance process that must conclude within 21 business days. Either the final agency decision or the decision resulting from a grievance may be appealed into federal court. A court may overturn those decisions only on grounds that they were arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law; reached without applicable procedures of law having been followed; or unsupported by substantial evidence.

Those provisions replaced a special policy initiated in 2014 for senior executives at that department that had provided for a shortened process of appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Also, under P.L. 115-188 of 2018, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs must personally approve all reassignments of senior executives of the department and must submit semi-annual reports to Congress on the purpose of each reassignment and the associated costs.

Sabbatical—Agency heads may grant sabbaticals to SES career members with seven years of experience at the SES level or equivalent, at least two of which must be in the SES, of up to 11 months during any 10-year period to encourage study or uncompensated work experience that will contribute to development and effectiveness. Those on sabbatical continue to receive salary and leave benefits, and agencies may authorize travel and living expenses. Those eligible for optional retirement are not eligible.

Leave—SES members earn 13 days of sick leave per year. They earn annual leave at the rate of 26 days per year regardless of their years of service, under 5 U.S.C. 6303, carried out at 5 CFR 630. This authority extends to parallel executive cadres in certain law enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as to certain other high-level employees. Also, they may carry 90 days (720 hours) from one leave year to the next rather than the standard 30 days (240 hours). (Note; Previous to enactment of the Government Management Reform Act of 1994 there was no ceiling; an individual’s accumulated leave in excess of 90 days as of October 13, 1994 became a personal leave ceiling.) SES members fall under standard policies regarding “use or lose” annual leave, restoration of forfeited leave and lump-sum payments on separation. See Chapter 5, Section 1.

Post-Employment Restrictions—Under 18 U.S.C. 207(c) as carried out in 5 CFR 730, if your basic pay is at least 86.5 percent of the rate for level II of the Executive Schedule, you are subject to certain post-employment restrictions that are more strict than those generally applying to federal employees. See Post-Employment Restrictions in Chapter 10, Section 5.

RIF Procedures—Special rules apply to SES members in reductions in force. See SES RIF Procedures in Chapter 9, Section 1.

Executive Development

Agencies are required to establish development programs for executives, managers, and supervisors, as well as candidates for those positions, and to regularly update those programs. These executive development programs must be designed in accordance with an agency’s strategic plan, foster a corporate perspective of government, and provide for initial training, continuing learning experiences, and systematic development of candidates for advancement to higher-level management positions.

There are many ways to provide developmental opportunities, such as the Candidate Development Program, formal and informal training experiences, seminars, forums, participation on task forces, interagency details, sabbaticals, assignments outside the federal sector, and mobility assignments. Many of these programs are geared toward developing the qualifications deemed necessary for senior executives. See Executive Core Qualifications in Section 3 in this chapter.

A February 18, 2011 memo (at www.opm.gov/ses/OMB_OPM_SESMemo.pdf) put renewed emphasis on career development through steps such as a governmentwide leadership development approach, networking opportunities, and rotational assignments for senior managers with potential to move into the executive ranks. One such rotational program is the President’s Management Council Interagency Rotation Program; see Training and Professional Development in Section 3 of this chapter.

A November 1, 2017 memo (at www.chcoc.gov/transmittals) on leadership talent management and succession planning requires that agencies: determine future executive resources needs; evaluate the current state of talent in their workforces; align talent to agency needs; finalize executive development plans; and implement and update those plans. Also see www.opm.gov/wiki/training/Succession-Planning.ashx.

Candidate Development Program—This program (see www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/training-and-development/leadership-development), is designed to create pools of persons qualified for SES positions on a centralized basis, complementing agency-based programs. Application periods, announced by OPM, are limited and eligibility rules may vary from one to the next; the length of the programs also may vary, typically between 12 and 24 months. The program typically is available only to those in high General Schedule grades.

Those applying to the program undergo an assessment/selection process, which includes an initial screening of qualifications and evaluation of written narratives describing key accomplishments, followed by an assessment center review and a structured interview. Applicants apply for occupational specialties identified by the employing agency and are required to submit extensive documentation to demonstrate their qualifications, including a resume, occupational questionnaire, accomplishment record, and other information.

Once selected, candidates participate in a developmental program, which may include: classroom training sessions; developmental assignments; on-the-job learning; leadership forums; mentoring; coaching; field experiences; reading assignments, and Web-based learning. Following satisfactory completion of such a program and Qualifications Review Board certification of their executive qualifications, graduates are eligible for career appointment to the SES without further competition. However, an appointment is not guaranteed.

Rules at 5 CFR 432 require agencies to obtain prior OPM approval and re-approval every five years of their own SES candidate development programs. The rules also require that developmental assignments include at least one assignment of 90 continuous days outside the scope of the candidate’s position of record and include roles at the executive level where the candidate is held responsible for achieving organizational or agency results during the assignment.

White House Leadership Development Program—The White House Leadership Development Program for Future Senior Career Executives (at https://pic.gov/content/white-house-leadership-development-program-1) provides mid-level managers and SES candidates with rotational assignments across agencies to gain experience by working high priority, high impact challenges that require the coordination of multiple agencies. The goal is to develop critical skill sets such as leading change, building coalitions, working across government to solve problems, and performance management.

Post-Selection Programs—September 30, 2011 and February 12, 2016 memos (at www.chcoc.gov/transmittals) provide guidance on “onboarding” programs to integrate newly hired SES members. Such programs are to address both short-term and longer-term strategies on subjects ranging from operational matters to issues of agency culture, and are to cover personnel-related topics including performance management, dealing with unacceptable performance, mentoring employees, improving employee performance and productivity, and conducting employee appraisals.

Agencies may decide which delivery methods best meet their organizational and their individual executive needs. Possible forms include instructor-led classes, experiential activities such as scenario planning, coaching, and self-guided learning activities. OPM does not require a specific number of hours for executive development, including for new executives.

Agencies may develop a mentoring and coaching component in their executive development programs. New executives are not required to have a mentor and/or executive coach, but OPM strongly encourages it.

Individuals new to the federal government who previously served as executives in another organization still must complete the required executive training within their first year of appointment. Agencies may decide if these individuals should complete the entire new executive training program or only parts.

Executive Order 13714 of 2015 set a goal of having 15 percent of SES members annually serve a rotational assignment; agencies with 20 or more SES members were ordered to craft plans toward that end. Under memos of January 29 and June 28, 2016 (at www.chcoc.gov/transmittals) those rotations must last at least 120 days and can take the form of: an executive reassignment; an executive transfer; a developmental assignment internal to the agency, for example to another subcomponent, functional area, or location; a detail or developmental assignment external to the agency; an assignment that includes full-time, extended service on a multi-agency or joint taskforce or project team that may provide employees with sufficient interagency experience to qualify as a rotation; or a sabbatical.

The 15 percent goal is government-wide, and not a specific requirement on each agency. Not every executive is required to rotate at least once during their SES tenure but it is encouraged for career developmental purposes. Similarly, not everyone aspiring to the SES level is required to have a rotational assignment but that is encouraged as a way to demonstrate readiness for the SES.

When selecting an executive for a rotation, an agency is to consider agency priorities, needs identified in existing agency succession and hiring plans, recommendations from the annual talent review process, the development opportunities in executive development plans, the government’s interest in cultivating generalist executives with broad and diverse experiences who can lead in a variety of organizations, and individual needs. Further, under the order, executives are to complete at least one professional development activity per year and receive a leadership assessment, such as a 360-degree multi-rater evaluation, at least every three years to inform their individual developmental needs. The annual developmental activity can take varying forms, including coaching and feedback or formal training, Examples include:

• The Situational Mentoring Program provides executives, particularly those who are new to the SES or transitioning to different roles, with advice and support from experienced executive mentors across government. It is designed to facilitate sharing of knowledge and expertise, expand personal networks, and increase collaboration across agency lines.

• The Federal Coaching Network, which includes a government-wide database of available federal internal coaches.

• Training at the Federal Executive Institute; see Training and Professional Development in Section 3 of this chapter.

Also see www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/senior-executive-service and a July 27, 2017 memo at www.chcoc.gov/transmittals.

Applying for SES Positions

There are two methods for entry into the career SES: application for a specific agency position and application for inclusion in an SES candidate development program (see above). SES vacancies are posted on www.usajobs.gov and in some cases on the individual agency’s site. Individuals interested in applying to join the SES should familiarize themselves with the executive core qualifications (see Section 3 in this chapter) and the Guide to Senior Executive Service Qualifications (at www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/senior-executive-service/reference-materials).

Individual agencies determine position qualification requirements, advertise career vacancies at least throughout the government, and make selections for their SES positions. Vacancies must be advertised for at least 14 calendar days and must be open to all federal employees in the civil service. Agencies may fill positions with former SES members eligible for reinstatement, by reassigning or transferring a current SES member, or by appointing a candidate development program graduate.

Before an initial career appointment to the SES can be made, the candidate’s executive qualifications must be approved by an independent Qualifications Review Board. Those are OPM-administered independent boards of senior executives that assess the executive core qualifications of candidates and whether a candidate has the broad leadership skills to be successful in a variety of SES positions.

Following a directive in Executive Order 13714 of 2015 to streamline and simplify the application process for SES positions, guidance of March 11 and June 28, 2016 (at www.chcoc.gov/transmittals) set policies for agencies for using hiring and review board submission methods other than those commonly applied, including an alternative to the traditional Executive Core Qualifications narrative.

The guidance also highlighted opportunities for training, partnering, and piloting of additional assessments; provided options for agencies to design hiring practices that best meet their needs; and instructed agencies to examine their hiring processes and make improvements in light of the guidance. OPM meanwhile advocated the development of new assessment methods, as well as alternative ways of documenting executive qualifications, such as video-based documentation, that could be used to satisfy the needs of review boards with less reliance on written materials. Agencies may consider all available submission options and select the option(s) best suited for their organizations as well as the specific requirements of positions for which they are hiring.

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