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Trump administration tells federal agencies to be ‘rigorous’ in evaluating employees

The United States Office of Personnel Management in Washington.

SARAH SILBIGER/THE WASHINGTON POST

By ERIC YODER | The Washington Post | Published: July 17, 2019

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has ordered federal agencies to apply "rigorous performance standards" when rating employees, calling for tougher assessments used in deciding promotions, cash bonuses and disciplinary measures such as firing.

"Agencies should ensure only employees who have demonstrated the highest levels of individual performance receive the highest annual ratings of record and the highest performance awards," said one of a pair of memos issued late last week.

Employees who get the highest ratings should receive "meaningfully greater rewards," said the memo from the Office of Personnel Management's acting director, Margaret Weichert.

A companion memo from both OPM and the Office of Management and Budget directs agencies to make sure their awards policies "foster a culture of recognition" and lifts a limit on how much they can pay out to employees as awards — although it does not provide more money for that purpose.

Administration officials said the guidance will help the government retain high-performing employees and compete with the private sector.

"The existing federal employee compensation system is outdated and fails to respond to labor market signals," said a senior administration official, who was not authorized to comment for attribution and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Conservative think tanks and many Republicans on Capitol Hill have argued for years that compensation for federal employees — both regular pay and bonuses — should be tied more closely to performance. They cite an annual federal employee survey that shows many civil servants do not believe their pay is related to how well they perform in their jobs.

Federal employee unions argue that ratings are often tainted by favoritism and other considerations beyond actual performance.

"We will be working to make sure that bonus award criteria remain objective, and that Trump appointees are prevented from using these funds in politicized or discriminatory ways," American Federation of Government Employees public policy director Jacque Simon said in a statement.

National Treasury Employees Union president Tony Reardon noted that in some places labor management contracts cover performance evaluations and that "agencies are not free to unilaterally change the programs without reopening the contract for more bargaining."

"If an agency seeks to rewrite the conditions of a performance award, NTEU will make sure it is operated fairly, performance standards are clearly communicated, and managers cannot grant or withhold awards for improper reasons," he said in a statement.

The most commonly used rating scale for federal workers has five levels, although systems of two, three or four levels are used in some places. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2016 that of employees below senior levels rated on a five-point scale, 38.6 percent were rated in 2013 at the top level, outstanding; 35.1 percent as exceeds fully successful; 25.5 percent as fully successful; 0.4 percent as minimally successful; and 0.1 percent as unacceptable.

A 2018 OPM report showed that in 2016, 51.7 percent of the 6,600 career executives were rated as outstanding, 40.7 percent as exceeds fully successful, 7.2 percent as fully successful, and 0.4 percent as either minimally successful or unacceptable.

Last week's memo from OPM told agencies that a fully successful rating should be viewed as a "positive notation" that shows an employee is delivering on "what the American public should be able to expect from their civil servants."

A rating of exceeds fully successful should be granted to those who go "measurably beyond" that standard, for example, by being proactive in detecting problems rather than only dealing with the ones they are assigned to address, it said.

A rating of outstanding should be reserved for "achieving objective, measurable outcomes, while being proactive and going significantly above and beyond daily requirements," according to the memo. It gives as an example achieving "extraordinary results or sustained a high level of performance during a highly demanding period or within a challenging environmental context, such as during a time of transition or undue pressure from extenuating circumstances or unique mission requirements."

The memo does not explicitly require agencies to rewrite performance standards for their employees, although it does say that such standards "should be sufficiently specific so that they provide firm benchmarks toward which an employee can aim his or her performance, and are not susceptible to a performance action based on whim instead of considered judgment."

It also reminds agencies that forced ratings distributions — "grading on the curve" — are prohibited.

The OPM-OMB memo also ends a policy that agencies may spend no more than 1.5 percent of their salary budgets on awards, a limit set in 2016 by the Obama administration that in turn had raised a cap it set earlier of 1 percent.

Even with the 1.5 percent cap, agencies in practice devote about 1 percent of their salary budgets to performance awards, according to the White House budget proposal early this year.

The memo further tells agencies that as they update their policies on awards, they should consider devoting more money to "special act" awards which recognize specific accomplishments, rather than performance over an entire year.

According to a 2016 report from OPM, 45 percent of employees below the senior levels received an individual performance-based cash award in 2014, averaging nearly $1,000, and 21 percent received special act awards, averaging about $700. The 2018 OPM report on senior executives showed that for them, the average performance award was above $15,000 for an "outstanding" rating and above $9,000 for an "exceeds fully successful" rating.
 

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