In the SES, Everyone is Above Average

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Assiduous readers will recall that Forest Service employees generally think poorly of their agency, according to the annual “Best Places to Work” polling. Dissatisfaction with the Forest Service cuts across the demographic spectrum — young, old, black, white, male, female.

With one exception. If you are fortunate enough to be one of the Forest Service’s cadre of Senior Executive Service employees (e.g., chief, deputy chief, regional forester, and the like), you’re pretty happy about your workplace. SES employees give the Forest Service a score of “86” out of 100 as a workplace, compared to scores in the 50’s by every other employee group.

GAO’s recently-released report “OPM Needs to Do More to Ensure Meaningful Distinctions Are Made in SES Ratings and Performance Awards” sheds some light on SES employee job satisfaction. The report takes departments to task for inflated performance ratings and associated cash bonuses. It turns out that in the SES everyone is above average — way above average. USDA gave over 95% of its SES employees a performance rating of “5 – outstanding” or “4 – exceeds fully successful,” the two highest scores on the 5-point scale (government-wide, 85% of SES employees received a 4 or 5 rating). SES employees who score below a “3” are ineligible for performance awards.

USDA gave performance awards of 5-6% (about $10,000) to 100% of its SES employees with a 4 or 5 rating. In other words, over 95% of USDA’s SES employees received a nice pay bump.

Imagine what the performance ratings and bonuses would be if the Forest Service’s employees ranked their superiors.

3 Comments

  1. I got another “Outstanding” performance rating this year and received absolutely nothing for it. Now I know why. There wasn’t enough left to “trickle down” to the little folks like me.
    Thanks for the post, Andy!

  2. I thought the scores might go up after I retired, but I guess it wasn’t just me. I remembered that the biggest fall-down in the scores was in the leadership categories (obviously their awards weren’t related to this evaluation). Of note, the bottom 5 in 2014:
    Effective leadership: senior leaders = 32.5
    Performance based awards and advancement = 36.5 (probably high scores from SES?)
    Effective leadership: empowerment = 37.8
    Strategic management = 41.8
    Effective leadership = 47

  3. Hi Andy.
    Good information and not surprising. I think “conflict of interest” is a major reason the Forest Service and most bureacracies can’t change. When people get into higher graded staff positions the pay and benefits are too good to risk losing them. Hence people stay “in place” at upper levels many years even in meaningless jobs. And there is tremendous incentive for executives to just go along with the organization—opposing silly policies could mean a punishment such as a transfer or forced early retirement.

    Besides the bonuses paid to Senior Executives, cash awards at Washington Office (WO) and Regional Office are shockingly common while (as you may know from your technician years) even training funds are hard to come by at the district.

    When I worked at the WO, there was an application process for SES open to all mid-level employees. However I was told that the Executive Team only sent on to USDA for consideration a small cadre who had “sponsors” among the leadership. The “ECQs” for SES and all management jobs are pretty good: Leading Change, Leading People, Results-Driven, Business Acumen, Building Coalitions, although it’s hard to see how they fit compliant people who have merely done all the right things and made the right moves.

    A couple years ago I published a Discussion piece in the Journal of Forestry* on organization norms that could be reinforcing the same “voluntary compliant” leadership culture in the Forest Service that was touted as a good thing in the 1950s but might not be so great for today’s complex leadership environment. I suggested this culture might be at the root of the consistently negative leadership ratings and the “happy” views of executives vs. everyone else. This blog ran a discussion section on the article in early 2013 but neither the blog nor JoF received much comment. A few people defended the status quo.

    I appreciate your attempts to shine light on an insular organization!

    * Chojnacky, C. 2012. Leadership Impact on Forest Service Operations: Intriguing Ideas from Public Administration Theories.” Journal of Forestry (December 2012 issue).

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