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Widening the SES net

May. 7, 2014 - 09:49AM   |  
By RON SANDERS   |   Comments
Excellence in Government
Dr. Ronald Sanders is a vice-president and fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton. (Colin Kelly / Gannett Government Media Co.)

OPM Director Katherine Archuletta has stated that improving the diversity of the Senior Executive Service corps is one of her top priorities. An SES that looks like America: that’s certainly a worthy goal, especially as we celebrate Public Service Recognition Week, but something that has proved particularly intractable. Despite years of years of exhortation by administrations both Democratic and Republican, the needle has yet to really jump.

That’s partly the result of low SES turnover—it’s hard to move that needle if there are relatively few opportunities to change the complexion of the corps—but that may be changing. There’s evidence that SES retirements are increasing (probably for all the wrong reasons), so there may be an opening, pun intended, to see some real progress. However, it will take more than exhortation if Archuletta wants to seize the moment.

One of the things she could do is establish an internal, fee-for-service headhunting operation in OPM to find, recruit, and match outstanding SES candidates, especially women and minorities, to SES opportunities. Today, the only way for those outstanding candidates to find the right SES position is to hope one opens up in their own back yard. Or they can play the USAJobs SES lottery, trying to guess which of the literally hundreds of vacancies posted there are for real and which are already slotted for an internal heir apparent.

Both represent long odds, especially when every SES vacancy attracts hundreds of resumes, and agencies are left to sort through them by blunt instrument paper reviews and panel interviews.

There’s a better way. It is a truism of the executive search business that the best candidates aren’t trolling the want-ads (or SES vacancy announcements on USAJobs) looking for openings. They have to be found and recruited, especially for opportunities in another agency. That’s particularly true in the federal government, where there is simply no effective administrative mechanism—other than the aforementioned USAJobs—to match a candidate in one agency or bureau with a vacancy in another.

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The net result is that after a few unsuccessful attempts, many talented candidates don’t bother to apply to most SES vacancies. If you want to improve the odds for those candidates—that is, match them to real openings that best fit their skill sets—you have to go out and search for them, recruit them, and then get the best of them in front of selecting officials.

Imagine if you were an agency head looking for a new CIO and an OPM headhunter presented you with a slate of diverse, ready-right-now SES candidates who have already been pre-vetted, perhaps even pre-assessed…candidates you likely would never see (because they would never bother to apply) if you just relied on USAJobs.

That’s how the rest of the planet fills key executive jobs, and while I’m not suggesting that the federal government stop announcing SES vacancies for free and open competition, I am arguing that that passive approach be supplemented by a more proactive, precision-guided, on-demand headhunting operation run out of OPM, at least for select SES vacancies.

Here’s how it could work: An agency with an SES vacancy—maybe it’s one in the C-suite, where the internal pool lacks real depth or diversity—would go to an OPM executive search specialist, who would go find talent the new-fashioned way: by tapping into a social media database of diverse, high-performing/high-potential candidates, as well as the network of senior career executives, functional or industry experts, and others who may have a read on them. That search specialist would identify those who may fit the bill, vet them (as discreetly as necessary) with their subordinates, peers and superiors, evaluate them against the job’s qualifications, and then reach out and actually recruit those that may offer the best fit.

Pre-recruit does not mean pre-select. The agency would still have to advertise the vacancy, and those pre-recruited candidates would still have to apply and compete for it along with everyone else, but the point is to go find them and convince them to apply. To get the operation jump-started, Archuletta could limit the initial search pattern to the literally hundreds of CDP grads already in waiting out there. If just one of those grads is identified as best qualified, she or he could be selected without further competition, just like that!

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To ensure that talented individuals, including women and minorities, have every opportunity in that regard, OPM could also revive the Federal SES Candidate Development program. Begun in 2004, that program (known as “Fed CDP” for short) was the result of a strategic partnership between OPM and key Democratic and Republican legislators. Among other things, it was intended to help improve SES diversity by providing an alternative pathway into the SES for high-potential candidates who may not have had the career opportunities in their ‘home’ agency, maybe because they were blocked there, or because their agency couldn’t afford to have an OPM-certified CDP of its own.

Despite its lofty intentions, the program was plagued by start-up difficulties (truth in lending—yours truly was in charge of it), and it was abandoned after just two cohorts, much to the chagrin of both its proponents and its graduates. However, none of its flaws were insurmountable, and I believe that properly retooled, it can open up new opportunities for talented SES candidates of every persuasion.

Combine the two—a revitalized Fed CDP 2.0 with an OPM headhunting capability that initially focuses on the hundreds of agency CDP graduates—and suddenly, Federal agencies have access to a whole new pool of promotion-ready candidates…a pool that is (hopefully) more diverse than those primarily internal sources that agencies currently default to today, and filled with candidates who have already been vetted, affirmatively recruited, matched with the best SES vacancy, and eligible for noncompetitive selection.

Is this guaranteed to improve SES diversity? No, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We know that there are plenty of outstanding, diverse SES candidates out there just waiting for the right opportunity, so these ideas (none of which requires significant investment in the grand scheme of things) could at least give Archuletta a fighting chance to improve their odds.

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