Learn About Senior Executive Service (SES)

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The Senior Executive Service consists of federal employees who report directly to Presidential appointees. These leaders are the link between the politics and administration of the US federal government.

How the SES Began

The SES was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. The idea was to foster responsiveness, accountability, and quality in the upper levels of the federal workforce. Because these executives would be deemed qualified, they could be held accountable for their agencies’ performance. Today, around 75 agencies have SES positions.

What Members Do

As most of the SES members are career government employees, they bring insight into the working of the federal government that many Presidential appointees do not have. A political appointee must rely on the expertise of top managers to carry out the statutory functions of the agency as well as inform the appointee about what is and is not possible for the agency to do within its legal authority, no matter what a particular President might want to be done.

When a new President takes office, the President must try to turn campaign promises into governing achievements. What many candidates often neglect is what the federal government is authorized to do. Laws can change, but the President needs the Congress to change laws.

SES members have the unfortunate task of delivering the news that what a President wants to do is not allowed by federal law. The Presidential appointee will then ask how the federal law needs to change to carry out the President’s wishes.

OPM’s Role

The US Office of Personnel Management oversees the SES. As agencies have become used to the SES, OPM has taken on more of a leadership role rather than a regulatory role. OPM staff sees their role as consultants helping agencies recruit and select executives.

OPM creates Qualifications Review Boards to determine whether individuals have what it takes to be federal executives. QRBs are composed of current SES members who volunteer to serve. It makes current SES members responsible for the future of the SES. Agencies are free to select their executives from those applicants who pass muster with a QRB.

Getting Into the SES

When QRB members deliberate the qualifications of an individual, they use the Executive Core Qualifications. Each ECQ encompasses several aspects of executive leadership that OPM deems necessary for an SES member. The five ECQs are the following:

  1. Leading Change -- An executive must be able to establish an organizational vision and implement it.
  2. Leading People -- An executive leads people to accomplish the organization’s vision, mission and goals.
  3. Results Driven -- An organization achieves goals and meets customers’ expectations through the application of technical knowledge, problem-solving and risk management.
  4. Business Acumen -- An executive manages resources strategically.
  5. Building Coalitions -- An executive builds coalitions with government agencies, non-profits, and other stakeholders to achieve common goals.

Approval from a QRB does not guarantee placement in an SES position. Approval is a requirement to be considered for an SES position.

Like other civil service jobs with the federal government, SES positions are posted on USAJobs, the federal government’s online job portal. Individuals can apply for an SES vacancy, and they can be considered by the QRB if the agency wants to pursue hiring them.

Individuals can also apply for the Federal Candidate Development Program through USAJobs. This one-year training program prepares current federal employees at the GS-15 pay grade to fill SES positions in the future. Candidates with comparable experience are considered. QRB approval is still required for those who complete the program. Individuals who complete the program can be placed in SES positions without further competition.