Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Is the Senior Executive Service Viable?

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Is the Senior Executive Service Viable?

Article excerpt

Is the Senior Executive Service Viable?

This article traces the political history of the federal sector Senior Executive Service, evaluates the current SES structure, and offers some observations as to whether it is viable given the political forces with which it must deal. Predictions are made then made as to how the SES will change in the future.

The Senior Executive Service (SES), the system used to manage the senior executives of the federal government has many critics and few proponents. Since its inception, it has had to endure high attrition rates, low morale, system contradictions which allow subordinates to be paid more than their superiors, and even lawsuits by the executives against the government.

All of this turmoil repeatedly brings to the surface of public debate the different question of whether the SES is a viable program. However, there is no easy answer and no single criterion of success. One measure might be the 14 purposes of the program that are listed in the law.(1) Yet most will agree that the stated statutory purpose often is only indirectly connected to the real reason the program was established. For example, Alan Campbell, who as President Carter's Civil Service Commission chairman was the primary designer of the SES program, discreetly suggested after the passage of the bill that the real and unstated purpose of the statute was to loosen the "iron triangle alliance" which existed among career bureaucrats, congressional committees, and interest groups. This break up was supposed to increase the ability of the White House to change the direction of the government.(2) Consequently, it is difficult to measure the success of SES against the prescribed statutory purposes.

Other measures are just as likely to be unsatisfying. There is not enough agreement on the goals of public administration to use them as a barometer. Objective research findings are instructive, but almost never persuasive. Even the opinions and interests of those who work with SES members will, at best, only be treated as interesting and informative.

In recognition of this measurement problem, this analyzes data from a variety of sources to develop an understanding of the nature and impact of the SES program; it's successes and failures. Included also are comments about its current viability, and some predictions about its future.

History of the Executive Service

The founders and early officials of our government seem to have paid little attention to the role of the appointed official in the Executive Branch. Immediately after the passage of the Constitution, Congress authorized the establishment of the five original administrative agencies. The simplicity of those statutes indicates the rather naive view Congress had of the federal bureaucracy. There were virtually no controls on the power of the President to fill these positions. It was not until President Jackson broke with tradition and implemented the spoils system that it became clear these positions could not be treated lightly by Congress.

The spoils system continued to dominate federal sector personnel management until 1883. At that time, the stress it created became so great that Congress passed the Pendleton Act. It called for the appointment to positions by competitive examinations, a geographic balance among those appointed, freedom from political pressure, and a limited form of tenure.(3) In short, it overrode the spoils system with a form of merit selection.

It is important to recognize the basic forces underlying the evolution of a federal executive service. Jackson's bold move was a clear reminder of the role the separation of powers plays in the management of the bureaucracy. Absent constraints by Congress, the President has a degree of freedom to steer the executive personnel system. From the earliest times, Congress and the President have been rivals for power, and there is no reason to believe they will stop anytime soon. …

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