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Obama team altering appraisal system for top-level civil servants

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Performance appraisal systems aren’t as exciting as listening to cereal go snap, crackle and pop, but they can have a big impact on the way federal employees work, how efficiently agencies operate and ultimately how well the public is served.

With that in mind, the Obama administration is launching a new appraisal system for the government’s top-level civil servants, those in the Senior Executive Service. The idea is to replace an evaluation process that varies from agency to agency with one that has greater consistency across government.

The administration also is looking at changing how the bulk of federal employees, those under the General Schedule system, are evaluated, but that remains a work in progress.

An expected important byproduct of the SES program now being implemented at a half-dozen agencies, with others coming on board over a two-year period, is the facilitation of movement among offices, creating a leadership corps that can draw on a range of experiences in problem solving.

“We’ve never had a consistent system across the government,” said John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

Berry and Jeffrey Zients, the administration’s chief performance officer and a deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, planned to issue a memo to federal agencies on Friday announcing the program.

The memo says: “Under the new system . . . agencies will be able to rely on a more consistent and uniform framework to communicate expectations and evaluate the performance of SES members . . . .”

“The system will provide agencies with a standardized approach to managing the performance of SES members — furthering Congress’ original vision . . . of an executive cadre that can readily move into different assignments as needed by the Government.”

A 2009 report said today’s SES “only vaguely reflects and demonstrates this vision.” The report was issued by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service (which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post) and the consulting firm of Booz Allen Hamilton.

Fulfilling the original vision of increasing executives’ mobility is a key element of the plan.

Moving among agencies has been complicated by their different rating systems. “Trust-ing ratings will make it easier to move from agency to agency,” said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. “Agencies now don’t trust other agencies’ performance ratings.”

Bonosaro welcomed greater uniformity in evaluations and said she was pleased that the administration included her association in developing the new program. But, she warned, “in the end . . . you can game any system.”

“We keep getting reports” about the suppression of senior executive ratings, she said. The complaints say that an immediate supervisor will give an employee an excellent rating but that it is lowered by an even higher-level boss. The reason, she speculates, is that if too many workers get a top rating, the agency will not appear to be rigorous enough.

“What’s the spirit in which this [new system] is going to be applied?” she asked. “Will it fairly judge and recognize their performance? That’s more important than the system itself.”

In fiscal 2010, more than 99 percent of SES members were rated as “fully successful” or better, with about half considered “outstanding.” Only four employees among 6,858 SES staffers were rated as “unacceptable.” OPM explains the ratings by saying senior executives are of the highest caliber, they are expected to excel and the data do not reflect those who are removed during the probationary period, downgraded or pushed to leave the government.

For GS employees, the administration is implementing a pilot evaluation program in five agencies — OPM, the Coast Guard, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Veterans Affairs. And what’s a new government program without an acronym? This one is GEAR: “Goals, engagement, accountability and results.”

The agencies will provide regular, perhaps quarterly, feedback to employees on their performance. Other elements include working to make supervisors more effective, providing better training for staff and management on performance issues, and improving the selection of bosses.

Although this sounds like Administration 101, Berry said, “I think this has the potential of revolutionizing performance accountability in the government.” If that’s really the case, then the current state must not be good.

GEAR will not change the GS system, but it does set the stage for more fundamental moves. “Before we get into modifications to the GS . . . ,” the government must develop a good performance-management system in advance of changing the compensation program.

“I’m trying to get the cart and the horse in the right order here,” he said.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this report.

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