Although the SES was designed to be a cadre of experts in leadership, in practice agencies typically look for specific technical expertise when hiring into those positions, according to the MSPB.

It noted that the SES—the highest level that career federal employees generally can reach—was created as a “corps of strong leaders who possess a broad governance perspective and are capable of serving in multiple leadership positions across the federal government.”


That intent is underscored the executive core qualifications, or ECQs, which serve as the roadmap for preparing for an SES career, it said. Those standards—leading change, leading people, being results driven, business acumen, and building coalitions—“are meant to take the focus off of technical competence in a specific job and emphasize overall leadership abilities that drive performance and accountability.”

“MSPB has found, however, that agencies still strongly emphasize technical competence,” it said, citing a 2015 report. Further a recent analysis of SES vacancy announcements over 2014-2017 found that overall 80 percent—and as high as 88 percent, in 2016—of those announcements “required applicants to demonstrate at least one mandatory technical competency—in addition to the ECQs—to qualify for the position. Clearly, agencies continue to value technical expertise in SES hires beyond the general technical credibility in OPM’s leadership competency model.”

Although the MSPB publication did not address it, a related issue is that the SES cadre was also envisioned to be highly mobile, with execs moving within and among agencies—and physically relocating if necessary—to use their management expertise to address needs. However, that also has not been fulfilled, in part because of the emphasis on having deep expertise in a particular program area.