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Senior Executive Service (SES)

 SES logo The Senior Executive Service (SES) is a corps of men and women who administer public programs at the top levels of Federal Government utilizing well-honed executive skills and broad perspectives of government and public service. Positions are primarily managerial and supervisory and serve just below top Presidential appointees forming a vital link between these appointees and the rest of the Federal workforce. Members of the SES are selected according to their leadership qualifications based on criteria established by the Office of Personnel Management which manages the overall Federal executive personnel system.

The SES was established by the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) of 1978 as a unique personnel system separate from the competitive and excepted services.

Criteria for SES Positions

SES positions are those within the executive branch of the Federal government that are classified above the GS-15 level, or an equivalent position, which is not required to be filled by Presidential appointment with Senate confirmation, and in which the incumbent:

  • directs the work of an organizational unit;
  • is held accountable for the success of one or more specific programs or project;
  • monitors progress toward organizational goals, and periodically evaluates and makes appropriate adjustments to such goals;
  • supervises the work of employees other than personal assistants; or
  • otherwise exercises important policy-making, policy-determining, or other executive functions.

The SES is a separate personnel system that incorporates the top managerial, supervisory, and policy-making positions that are classified above GS-15.  The Director, NIH manages all SES slots and allocation decisions are made on a case-by-case basis for specific positions before being forwarded to DHHS for final approval. The Secretary’s approval is required before any SES appointment, reassignment, or transfer can be effected.  Most of the SES positions at NIH are senior Administrative/Management positions in the OD and the ICs.  SES career appointments are made without time limitation.  Initial career appointments to the SES must be made following competitive merit staffing requirements.  Initial career appointments must meet the competitive SES merit staffing provisions in 5 U.S.C. 3393 at the time of selection, and the individual’s managerial qualifications must be certified by the OPM Qualifications Review Board before appointment.  Agencies must announce SES vacancies that will be filled by initial career appointment to at least all Federal civil service employees. Vacancies are published on the USAJOBS website  External Web Site Disclaimer . Veteran’s preference does not apply to SES selections. Each agency head appoints an Executive Resources Board (ERB) to conduct the merit staffing process. The ERB reviews the executive qualifications of each eligible candidate and makes recommendations to the appointing official concerning the candidates. Upon tentative selection, a Qualifications Review Board (QRB) administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) must certify an individual’s Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) before he/she is appointed to the SES. A one-year probationary period follows initial career appointment in the SES.


The FY04 National Defense Authorization Action (P.L. 108-136) established a performance-based pay system for the SES which requires agencies to make decisions on setting and adjusting rates of base pay for SES members based on individual performance and/or contributions to the agency. SES pay is set within an open range which has a minimum rate of basic pay equal to 120 percent of the rate for GS-15, step 1. The maximum rate of basic pay for agencies which have a certified performance appraisal system is equal to Level II of the Executive Schedule (EX- II). Agencies which are not certified are limited to a maximum rate of basic pay equivalent to Executive Level III (EX-III). The Office of Personnel Management must certify an agency’s performance appraisal system on an annual basis with concurrence from the Office of Budget and Management (OMB). Usually each January, a Presidential Executive Order adjusts the minimum rate of basic pay for the SES rate range to be consistent with the increase in the minimum rate of basic pay for senior-level (SL) positions.

  • SES Compensation (OPM) External Web Site Disclaimer 
  • Additional compensation items:
    • SES members are eligible for retention incentives up to 25% of base pay
    • SES members may also be granted relocation allowances and recruitment incentives
    • SES members are NOT eligible for within-grade increases like GS employees
    • SES employees are NOT eligible for premium pay, including overtime, and may NOT earn compensatory time for work performed (except that as stated in 5 U.S.C. 5550a)
    • SES members may be eligible for cash and honorary awards (see section below)


Benefits for SES members are the same as those of other Federal employees except that they accrue annual leave at the rate of 1 day (8 hours) for each full bi-weekly pay period and their annual leave cap is increased from 240 to 720 hours. (Annual leave accrued in excess of 240 hours by the date of appointment to the SES, however, is subject to forfeiture if not used by the beginning of the next year.)

Performance Management

Agencies establish SES performance management systems that hold senior executives accountable for their individual and organizational performance. Each SES member is placed on an individual performance plan that outlines goals and expectations for the appraisal period and is linked with an agency’s strategic planning initiatives. Appraisal cycles are based on the fiscal year.

Awards & Incentives

Various incentives and awards are authorized to help attract, retain, recognize, reward and motivate highly competent executives. By law, only career SES appointees are eligible for rank and performance awards:


SES members are subject to the same standards of ethical conduct as other Federal employees. SES members of the NIH are provided with ethics policies and information during the recruitment process and work with an NIH ethics coordinator at the time of hire to resolve outstanding ethical issues and conflicts;

Training, Development & Support

Both the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sponsor Candidate Development Programs (CDPs) which are designed to develop pools of qualified candidates and help Federal agencies meet their succession planning goals. The program provides career enhancement and executive skills development for GS-14 and 15 (or equivalent work experience) employees with high potential for the SES. Participants are selected through competitive merit staffing procedures. CDP opportunities are posted on USAJOBS during open application periods.

In addition training and developing new pools of SES candidates, OPM provides continuing education to enhance the leadership skills of SES members from initial orientation to briefings, symposia, workshops, and on-going training at facilities across the country.

Organizations such as the Senior Executives Association (SEA) actively promote efficiency, effectiveness and productivity within the Federal Government by advancing SES skills, opportunities, and professional and ethical standards while enhancing public recognition of federal career executives.

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