The Senior Executive Service (SES) is the highest civilian service in the government. Membership in the SES) demands leadership, professional integrity, a broad perspective, and a commitment to the highest ideals of public service.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) administers the SES program which was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Applying for the SES is a multi-level process that requires demonstration of a candidate’s executive core qualifications or ECQs. The ECQs were identified after extensive research into the leadership attributes of successful executives across the government and private sectors. ECQs include: leading change, leading people, results driven, business acumen, and building coalitions. These competencies are used to test potential candidates on the needed leadership qualifications to be an executive in today’s civil service.

The Senior Executive Service (SES) in Brief

There are several kinds of SES positions, as well as other executive-level positions in the federal government. The two kinds of SES positions are career reserved (for people in the career service) and general. Most SES positions are general, and filled through merit staffing procedures. The focus of our session is on general career SES appointments. In addition, you may have also heard about Senior Level (SL) and Scientific or Technical (ST) positions. They are briefly discussed below. SES positions are approved by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM); agencies cannot just decide that they need additional executives without OPM approval.

Senior Level (SL) Positions

The Senior Level (SL) category of high level Federal jobs was established in 1990 to replace GS-16, 17, and 18 of the General Schedule. There are two broad types of SL positions.

Most Senior Level employees are in non-executive positions whose duties are broad and complex enough to be classified above GS 15. However, in a few agencies that are statutorily exempt from inclusion in the Senior Executive Service (SES), executive positions are staffed with SL employees. The exemption from the SES covers Government corporations and a few other small agencies; examples include the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), Export-Import Bank, and Federal Election Commission.

Scientific or Professional (ST) Positions

This unique category of Federal jobs covers non-executive positions classified above the GS-15 level, and involves performance of high-level research and development in the physical, biological, medical, or engineering sciences, or a closely-related field. Many of the Federal Government’s most renowned scientists and engineers serve in ST positions.

SL/ST positions may include some supervisory and related managerial duties, provided that these duties occupy less than 25 percent of the incumbent’s time. Positions in which supervisory and managerial work constitutes 25 percent or more of the incumbent’s time almost always meet the criteria for the Senior Executive Service (SES). Again, this rule does not apply in agencies exempt from the SES, where Senior Leaders function as executives and often have extensive supervisory responsibilities.


SL positions are in the competitive service unless excepted from the competitive service under statute or regulations. An SES member may be appointed to an SL position noncompetitively if he or she has reinstatement eligibility and is qualified for the position.

All ST positions are in the competitive civil service; however, by statute appointments may be made to ST positions without going through the competitive examination process required for most entrants into the competitive civil service. This means qualified applicants for ST positions can often be hired more quickly than applicants for other Federal positions.

Applying for the Senior Executive Service

Initial appointments to the Senior Executive Service are based on merit competition. Federal law requires that agencies establish an Executive Resources Board (ERB) to oversee and participate in the merit staffing process. Generally, the process includes widespread public notification of the job announcement on USAJOBS among other locations for a minimum of 14 days, preliminary review of applications by a human resources specialist at the individual agency, rating and ranking of applicants by an agency panel with in-depth knowledge of the job’s requirements, evaluation of each candidate’s qualifications by the agency’s ERB, and final recommendation to the appointing authority. Once a tentative selection is made, the candidate’s application package is submitted to an Office of Personnel Management (OPM)-administered Qualifications Review Board (QRB) for certification of the candidate’s executive core qualifications. Only when a QRB approves a candidate’s executive core qualifications is the candidate appointed to an SES position in an agency.

Nancy Segal is a federal human resources training and job search expert. Following her own 30-year federal HR career (much of it at the senior level), she founded Solutions for the Workplace LLC in 2003 to provide an HR management perspective to both federal managers and astute applicants to U.S. government positions. Nancy has unmatched federal career management insight, high standards, and respect for people’s time, and her clients use this to their advantage.