Senior Executive Service: Opportunities for Selected Agencies to Improve Their Career Reassignment Processes

GAO-20-559 Published: Sep 16, 2020. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Agencies may reassign career, federal employees in the Senior Executive Service (SES). But reassignments must meet certain requirements to protect these executives from arbitrary decisions.

Protections include two 120-day periods when agencies can't reassign SES members who don't choose to be moved. The moratoriums begin when a new agency head or a new, non-career supervisor (political appointee) is appointed.

Selected agencies couldn't always show that executives voluntarily accepted the reassignments, particularly when a non-career supervisor took over.

We recommend that the Office of Personnel Management better oversee SES reassignments.


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What GAO Found

The Senior Executive Service (SES) was designed, in part, to enable agencies to assign and reassign career SES members to best accomplish the agency's mission. When reassigning career SES members, agencies must meet requirements to protect career SES members from arbitrary and capricious actions. These protections include two 120-day moratoriums when agencies cannot involuntarily reassign career SES members, although voluntary reassignments are permissible, if certain requirements are met. The moratorium periods begin upon the permanent appointment of a (1) new agency head or (2) career SES member's new, noncareer supervisor (e.g., a political appointee).

Selected agencies GAO reviewed—the Departments of Commerce (Commerce), Energy, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Interior (Interior)—varied in the extent to which they reassigned career SES members during moratoriums. Agencies most often initiated these reassignments to address agency-specific priorities, including filling senior-level vacancies and succession planning.

Reassignments Made within 120-Day Moratoriums at Selected Agencies, Fiscal Years 2017 through 2019

Selected agency

New agency head moratorium

New, noncareer supervisor moratorium

Department of Commerce



Department of Energy



Department of Housing and Urban Development



Department of the Interiora









Source: GAO analysis of selected agency documentation. I GAO-20-559

aIncludes reassignments from October 30, 2017, through September 30, 2019, to avoid duplicating work previously performed by the department's Office of Inspector General.

Selected agencies could not always demonstrate that they met requirements for career SES reassignments, especially for reassignments during the new, noncareer supervisor moratorium. Specifically:

Commerce did not maintain required documentation,

HUD did not seek written waivers from the career SES member, and

Interior's process did not address how to make reassignments during the moratorium.

As a result, they could not always show that career SES member reassignments during moratorium periods were voluntary. Each agency made or was making improvements to their career SES reassignment process, but in some cases need to make further process changes to fully address reassignment requirements.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is responsible for the governmentwide management of the SES. While OPM has oversight authority, it has not monitored career SES reassignments, or required agencies to take corrective actions. As a result, OPM is likely missing opportunities to correct career SES reassignments that were contrary to requirements.

Why GAO Did This Study

The SES was created in 1978 as a corps of federal executives selected for their leadership qualifications. They serve in key positions just below the top presidential appointees. Federal agencies have broad authority to reassign career SES members, but these reassignments must meet certain requirements. GAO was asked to provide information on the reassignments of career SES members. Among other things, this report examines (1) career SES reassignments at selected agencies within the moratoriums on involuntary reassignments from fiscal years 2017 through 2019, (2) the extent to which selected agencies followed requirements, and (3) OPM's monitoring of career SES reassignments.

GAO analyzed personnel records, reviewed agency processes, and interviewed agency officials from four selected agencies that were among those with the highest percentage of career SES members reassigned in fiscal year 2017. GAO also reviewed requirements and OPM guidance, and interviewed OPM officials.

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GAO is making four recommendations, including one each to Commerce, HUD, and Interior to improve their career SES reassignment processes, to which each agency agreed. GAO also recommends OPM monitor career SES reassignments. OPM disagreed, but GAO maintains that oversight is needed, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Commerce The Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the department-level Executive Resources Board and Office of Executive Resources, should fully implement policy and guidance in development that require the bureaus to maintain career SES reassignment-related documentation in the SES member's Official Personnel Folder, and to provide those documents to the Office of Executive Resources for review and approval before making career SES reassignments. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In its comments on a draft of this report, Commerce concurred with the recommendation and indicated it would take steps to implement the recommendation. On August 11, 2021, Commerce's Acting Director for Human Resources Management and Chief Human Capital Officer issued a policy memorandum that provided guidance for maintaining career SES reassignment-related documentation in the SES member's Official Personnel Folder, and providing those documents to the Office of Executive Resources for review and approval before making career SES reassignments. This guidance will help Commerce monitor SES reassignments and ensure related document retention requirements are met going forward. .
Department of Housing and Urban Development The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development should establish a date to finalize its draft standard operating procedures for conducting career SES reassignments, and ensure that the final procedures include (1) obtaining a written moratorium waiver from the career SES member before making the reassignment during the new, noncareer supervisor moratorium, and (2) retaining the waiver in the member's Official Personnel Folder. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In its comments on the draft of the report, HUD said it finalized standard operating procedures for making career SES reassignments, and thus believes it has addressed our recommendation. HUD subsequently provided us with supporting documentation. We reviewed the new procedures, which showed they were finalized in May 2020, and they included direction to obtain a written moratorium waiver from the career SES member before making the reassignment during the new, noncareer supervisor moratorium, and retain the waiver in the member's Official Personnel Folder. In addition, we found HUD developed a memo with language that can be used by its Office of Executive Resources to secure a waiver in writing, when applicable. HUD provided documents that showed they had followed the procedures in June 2020 to inform a career SES member that a new, non-career supervisor reassignment moratorium was in effect and got the member's waiver in writing as required to make the reassignment. As a result of these actions, HUD now has a process in place to help ensure that it will consistently meet SES reassignment moratorium requirements going forward, and we are closing this recommendation as implemented.
Department of the Interior The Secretary of the Interior should update its career SES reassignment process to document agency processes for making reassignments during the new, noncareer supervisor moratorium period and ensure that those processes are in accordance with the requirement related to waivers of the moratorium period. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
In its written comments on the draft report, Interior stated that it had updated its standard operating procedures (SOP) to include career SES reassignments during the new, noncareer supervisor moratorium. On October 1, 2020, Interior provided us with the revised SOP, dated July 2020. Interior also provided us with a July 9, 2020, email from its Office of Human Capital Director (Executive Resources Division) to the bureaus' Executive Resources team, notifying them of the revised SOP, the material changes made to their procedures regarding career SES reassignments, and where the SOP in its entirety can be found. Interior's revised procedures require that if the career SES member's supervisor is a noncareer appointee, there must be verification that the supervisor has been in place for at least 120 days before submitting the reassignment request to Interior's Executive Resources Board for approval. These reassignments would be after the 120-day moratorium on involuntary reassignments of career SES members following appointment of a new, noncareer supervisor. During this moratorium, agencies have to obtain a waiver from the career SES member to make a reassignment. With this change in procedures, Interior will not approve career SES reassignments during the new, noncareer supervisor moratorium period, and therefore waivers would not be required.
Office of Personnel Management The Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management should use OPM's oversight authority to monitor career SES reassignments to ensure that federal agencies meet requirements contained in statute or regulation, and follow OPM's related guidance. In situations where OPM finds that an agency has taken a career SES reassignment action contrary to these requirements, it should use its authority to require the agency to take corrective action, as appropriate. (Recommendation 4)
OPM did not concur with our recommendation. In its comment on a draft of the report, OPM said it relies on federal agencies to comply with provisions governing SES reassignments. OPM further stated that it has chosen not to make reassignments a focus of its enforcement efforts, in light of scarce resources and other mandates OPM is required to meet. In August 2022, OPM reiterated that it did not concur with the recommendation for these same reasons. However, as discussed in the report, we maintain that OPM should use its oversight authority to ensure agencies' reassignments of SES staff are consistent with requirements. We will continue to monitor OPM's progress.

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