Senior Executive Service:

Retirement Trends Underscore the Importance of Succession Planning

GGD-00-113BR: Published: May 12, 2000. Publicly Released: May 12, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Senior Executive Service's (SES) retirement trends, focusing on: (1) trends for the SES' workforce governmentwide and for selected agencies and occupational series through fiscal year (FY) 2005 and how they compared with the trends over the 7-year period ending FY 1998; and (2) the implications of SES retirement trends for SES succession planning.

GAO noted that: (1) the proportion of career SES members employed in selected agencies and occupational series who will be eligible to retire by the end of FY 2005 varies by agency and occupational series and differs from the governmentwide rate of 71 percent; (2) the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will have the highest SES regular retirement eligibility rate of the 14 selected agencies in GAO's review; (3) VA may have to replace a large number of its career SES members because 82 percent of those members and 81 percent of SES members in health system administration, who are primarily employed at VA, will be eligible to retire by September 30, 2005; (4) health system administration will have the second highest retirement eligibility rate of the eight selected occupational series included in GAO's review--criminal investigation will have the highest; (5) conversely, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission , and attorneys will have the lowest SES retirement eligibility rates by September 30, 2005; (6) both EPA and the attorney series will experience the greatest increase in the proportion of the career SES workforce to attain retirement eligibility; (7) the SES retirement trends projected for the first few years of this decade illustrate that the SES is an aging workforce; (8) because individuals normally do not enter the SES until well into their careers, SES retirement eligibility generally is much higher than for the workforce in general, but SES retirement eligibility also is growing compared with eligibility early in the 1990s; (9) these trends highlight the importance of SES succession planning because the SES retirements will result in a loss in leadership continuity, institutional knowledge, and expertise among the SES corps with the degree of the loss varying among agencies and occupations; (10) available evidence suggests that formal SES succession planning is not being done universally; (11) SES members from more than 24 agencies said their agencies do not have a formal succession planning program for the SES; (12) Office of Personnel Management officials said most agencies will not likely have formal, comprehensive succession plans; and (13) studies by the National Academy of Public Administration in 1994 and 1997 showed that formal SES succession planning generally was not being done in the federal government.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: Given the results of GAO's review and the importance of succession planning as recognized by GAO as well as others, OPM, in light of its role of overseeing the SES, should take a proactive, systematic approach to identifying to what extent agencies are doing formal SES succession planning. The Director of OPM should take steps to identify the status of formal SES succession planning in the federal government. These steps could be in the form of conducting a survey of agencies' succession planning efforts. The purpose of the survey would be to determine whether or not agencies have established a comprehensive, ongoing SES succession planning program that enables them to forecast their SES resource needs and identify and develop a pool of qualified, diverse individuals from which to select potential SES candidates.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Subsequent to GAO's May 2000 report recommendation that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) establish a proactive and systematic approach to identify to what extent agencies are conducting formal Senior Executive Service succession planning, OPM has surveyed the status of agencies' efforts. In November 2003, OPM identified and published what it considered "promising practices" in succession planning at six government agencies that it evaluated. In addition, in August 2004, a President's Management Agenda (PMA) report listed which agencies had succession plans in place, and stated that ninety-two percent of federal agencies had strategies for ensuring that they are developing future leaders. These surveys are based on OPM's "Human Capital Standards". In collaboration with GAO and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), OPM revised its Human Capital Standards for Success, which include succession planning components. Based on these revised standards, OPM developed a Human Capital Assessment and Accountability Framework. OPM utilizes this framework, in conjunction with the PMA, to quarterly evaluate 26 agencies' human capital programs, including succession planning. The PMA has established a case for government-wide reform on five key initiatives, partially based on prior GAO statements, reports, and products such as the high-risk list. OPM is the lead agency for the Human Capital initiative.

    Recommendation: For agencies that are not doing formal SES succession planning, the Director of OPM should contact the agencies, ensure that they are aware of tools or models that OPM or others have available to assist agencies in doing succession planning, and periodically follow up to determine whether the agencies need any additional assistance.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Subsequent to GAO's May 2000 report recommendation that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) take actions to make agencies aware of tools and models that OPM or others have available to assist agencies in succession planning, OPM has published information and links to succession planning tools and models on its web site. For example, OPM uses the Human Capital Standards for Success, a joint product of GAO, OPM, and the Office of Management and Budget, as the foundation for its Strategic Management of Human Capital web page, which was last updated in October 2003. The standards include succession planning components. OPM also displays a Human Resource Tools and Resources page on its website which includes links to human capital frameworks, statistics, instructions and other references. This page can be accessed via icon from OPM's main web page. Finally, OPM lists two GAO products on its web site and describes them as "significant documents on human capital".

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