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The Senior Executive Service (SES) was established by Title IV of the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978 [Pub. L. 95-454, October 13, 1978] and became effective on July 13, 1979. The CSRA envisioned a Senior Executive Service whose members shared values, a broad perspective of Government, and solid executive skills. Members of a “corporate SES” respected and embraced the dynamics of American democracy - an approach to governance that provided a continuing vehicle for change.

The CSRA’s stated purpose was to “ensure that the executive management of the Government of the United States is responsive to the needs, policies, and goals of the nation and otherwise is of the highest quality.” To achieve this purpose, CSRA gave greater authority to agencies to manage their executive resources and stated the SES was to be administered to—

  • attract and retain highly competent executives;
  • assign executives where they will be most effective in accomplishing the agency’s mission and where best use will be made of their talents;
  • provide for the systematic development of managers and executives;
  • hold executives accountable for individual and organizational performance;
  • reward the outstanding performers and remove the poor performers; and
  • provide an executive personnel system free of prohibited personnel practices and arbitrary actions.

SES Coverage

The SES covers positions in the executive branch that are classified above GS-15 or are in level IV or V of the Executive Schedule, or equivalent positions, which are not required to be filled by Presidential appointment with Senate confirmation, and are responsible for executive, managerial, supervisory, and/or policy functions characteristic of the SES. (See 5 U.S.C. 3132(a)(2) and discussion on page 1-13, Other Factors.) Under CSRA, the SES was set up as a “third” service, completely separate from the competitive and excepted services.

Statutory Inclusions in the SES

Occasionally, laws will establish positions in the SES. Agencies should review their positions to ensure they comply with the law. For example, in 2013, the Small Business Act was amended to address placement of the Director of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization position into the SES if specific conditions were met (See 15 U.S.C. 644(k)(2)).

Statutory Exclusions from the SES

The following agencies and agency components are excluded from the SES by law [generally 5 U.S.C. 3132(a)(l)]:

  • legislative and judicial branch agencies;
  • independent Government corporations;
  • Government Accountability Office;
  • Federal Election Commission or Election Assistance Commission;
  • Federal Aviation Administration;
  • Central Intelligence Agency;
  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence;
  • Defense Intelligence Agency;
  • National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency;
  • National Security Agency;
  • Department of Defense intelligence activities, the civilian employees of which are subject to section 1606 of title 10;
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation;
  • Drug Enforcement Administration;
  • as determined by the President, an Executive agency or unit thereof whose principal function is the conduct of foreign intelligence or counterintelligence activities;
  • certain financial management regulatory agencies, including the Comptroller of the Currency and Office of Thrift Supervision in the Department of the Treasury, the Resolution Trust Corporation, Farm Credit Administration, Federal Housing Finance Agency, National Credit Union Administration, Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, and the Office of Financial Research;
  • the Securities and Exchange Commission;
  • the Commodity Futures Trading Commission; and
  • the Transportation Security

The following positions are excluded from the SES by law [generally 5 U.S.C. 3132(a)(2)]:

  • positions to which appointment is required to be by the President with Senate confirmation;
  • Foreign Service positions;
  • Administrative Law Judge positions;
  • any position established as a qualified position in the excepted service by the Secretary of Homeland Security under section 226 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002;
  • any position established as a qualified position in the excepted service by the Secretary of Defense under section 1599f of title 10; and
  • agency boards of contract appeals

Public Law 112-166, the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, also prevented certain positions that met the definition of an SES position in 5 U.S.C. 3132(a)(2) from being placed in the SES. Section 2 of the Act eliminated the requirement for Senate confirmation of specified presidentially-appointed positions in federal agencies and departments.

Many of these positions were in level IV or level V of the Executive Schedule and were responsible for executive functions. In the absence of Senate confirmation, straightforward application of 5 U.S.C. 3132(a)(2) would require such a position to be established as an SES position if it is in an agency covered by the Senior Executive Service. Since that result was not intended for these positions, Congress included paragraph 2(hh) to specify that, notwithstanding 5 U.S.C. 3132(a)(2), that removal of Senate confirmation would not require them to be placed in the SES or affect their compensation. Agencies therefore should keep track of those level IV and level V (or equivalent) positions identified in section 2 of the Act for which Senate confirmation is no longer required to assure they are not inadvertently placed in the SES. Please note that exclusion of a position from the SES under section 2(hh) of the Act applies only to the positions specified in section 2.

Presidential Exclusions from the SES

By law, the President may exclude agencies and/or positions from the SES, and such is the case for the following positions: staff positions at the National Security Council, as well as temporarily appointed U.S. Attorneys and paid supervisory Assistant U.S. Attorneys at the Department of Justice. For further information on SES exclusions see 5 U.S.C. 3132(c) thru (f).

Agency Responsibilities

Most SES operational responsibilities are assigned by law to the agencies, with particular emphasis given to the key roles of the Executive Resources Board (ERB) and the Performance Review Board (PRB). Agencies may hire, develop, assign work to, manage performance of, pay, and remove their executives. Agencies are accountable for managing their SES resources in compliance with law and regulation. Agencies are also accountable for keeping SES and equivalent executive records current in the Executive and Schedule C System (ESCS). To promote the sense of a unified and unique SES, agencies are encouraged to take steps to provide SES members timely information about SES matters such as administration and agency initiatives, publicizing awards for accomplishment and performance of SES members, and providing formal swearing in and orientation programs for new appointees.

Some agencies may have executive authorities or other positions above GS-15, such as SL (senior- level) and ST (scientific and professional), for specially qualified scientific and professional personnel primarily engaged in research and development, the Senior Foreign Service, or a military or other uniformed service. Heads of such agencies should, as much as possible, integrate all special authorities and systems into a comprehensive approach for meeting their executive resources needs.

OPM Responsibilities

OPM oversees the development, selection, and management of Federal executives and is responsible for overall management of Federal executive personnel programs. Key responsibilities include—

  • developing Governmentwide executive resources policies and regulations;
  • approving agency SES and SL/ST performance management systems, and certifying, them with OMB concurrence;
  • providing guidance and technical assistance to agencies on executive resources topics, including executive development;
  • developing legislative initiatives related to executive personnel systems;
  • allocating position and appointment authorities;
  • administering Qualifications Review Boards (QRBs) and the Presidential Rank Awards program;
  • reviewing and approving agencies’ SES candidate development program (SESCDP) policies;
  • managing the executive information management system, e., Executive and Schedule C System (ESCS);
  • communicating with senior executives, the Federal human resources community, and other stakeholders on executive resources matters; and ensuring compliance with laws and regulations pertaining to executive personnel systems.

Executive Resources Forums. OPM periodically hosts Executive Resources Forums and convenes Work Groups, to provide updates, address common concerns, and obtain field perspectives on continuing and future executive resource issues and initiatives.

SES Insignia. The SES insignia or emblem represents a keystone – the center stone that holds all the stones of an arch in place. This represents the critical role of the SES as a central coordinating point between Government's political leadership, which sets the political agenda, and the line workers who implement it. Members of the SES translate that political agenda into reality. The upright lines in the center of the keystone represent a column in which individual SES members are united into a single leadership corps. There is no particular symbolism to the number of lines, which has varied over the years with different iterations of the logo. The SES insignia cannot be modified and may only be used for official Government business.

Senior Executives

Senior executives play an important role in the management of executive resources. They have the challenge and responsibility to transform the Nation’s laws and administration policies into effective service to the public. This demands leadership, professional integrity, and commitment to the highest ideals of public service. Federal executives must develop a sense of ownership and pride in a set of common goals, values, and attitudes that extend beyond individual aspirations and transcend their commitment to a specific agency mission.

Merit System Principles and Prohibited Personnel Practices

Merit principles. The Senior Executive Service is to be administered in a manner consistent with the merit system principles prescribed at 5 U.S.C. 2301

Prohibited personnel practices. Under 5 U.S.C. 2302(a)(2)(B), any position in the SES occupied by a career appointee is considered a “covered position” for the purpose of prohibited personnel practices.


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