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Federal Diary Live

Steven L. Katz
Former Legislative and Executive Branch Official
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; 12:00 PM

Looking for tips and strategies that allow you to make the most out of new systems that emphasize job performance and performance-based pay? Trying to get a grasp on what the changes underway at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security will mean for employees and managers there? And what their impact could be on the rest of the government?

Steven L. Katz, a former legislative and executive branch official, joined The Post's Stephen Barr, who writes the Federal Diary column, to discuss potential strategies for federal managers and employees at noon April 6 on Federal Diary Live.

Katz is a former chief counsel to the chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears employee appeals of disciplinary action. He previously served as an aide to former senator John Glenn (D-Ohio) on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Katz, a lawyer, is the author of the 2004 book, "Lion aming: Working Successfully With Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers."

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today. Our guest is Steve Katz, author of "Lion Taming" and a former senior official at the Merit Systems Protection Board and a former adviser to the comptroller general at the Government Accountability Office. Steve, to get this discussion rolling, please describe the shift in attitude that is going to be needed as federal employees transition to performance-based systems? Thanks for taking time to join us and answer reader questions.

Steven L. Katz: Steve, thank you for the invitation to respond to questions from the federal managerial and employee community. Although performance based approaches are not entirely new to federal agencies, it has never been attempted on such a widescale before. The lessons we do have available indicate that federal employees need to make a shift in attitude in order for the systems to work, and that shift is primarily based on taking a more proactive approach to planning and establishing your performance goals, and doing so as a part of a team or group effort within each division and office. There is a managerial component to this that has not existed traditionally in the civil service system, and therefore managers need to view performance based systems as strategic and planning instruments as opposed to merely a tool for evaluation, assessment, and rewards.


Vienna, Va.: Mr. Katz, what advice do you have for federal employees who will be moving into a pay-for-performance system and who fear that their boss (or bosses) will not be very good at identifying the great performers vs. the marginal performers--meaning that performance ratings and pay adjustments will be somewhat arbitrary or, worse, based on favoritism.

Steven L. Katz: The key to recognition as a good performer, even if you are not accustomed to tooting your own horn, does require you to get engaged at the earliest stage to work with your boss and others to ensure that you have input into the performance standards and specific expectations being applied in your office. In some ways I believe that the people who have to change the most under performance based systems are not the indivudal employees, many of whom feel that they may be targeted by such changes, but actually the managers who must create performanced based programs that will truly reflect the mission and accomplishments of their department, division, or office -- and which have integrity once they are applied. While I cannot predict the future I believe that where integrity and accountability are lacking the weaknesses of the managers in these instances will become more transparent, not less. It may be worth asking OPM what they are planning to do to offer training to managers who will have these new responsibilities.


Kensington, Md.: What are the similarities between the federal government and the private sector when it comes to performance appraisals?

Steven L. Katz: Performance appraisals have been used across the private sector, though in many instances they have unique features that apply to the specific job functions. However, people overestimate the similarity or the applicability of such performance appraisals from one sector to another.

The chief differentiating point in the public sector and the federal government in particular is the link between retention and recruiting. In the private sector, three is always a revenue target and a growth target -- and it is perhaps easier to reward a wide variety of people for contributing to these goals. It is more difficult however to link performance to the failure to reach these goals -- while you can say that someone didn't achieve a particular performance objective, the company's failure to achieve revenue or growth goals might actually be attributable to other factors -- financial management, skill gaps, competition, resource costs etc that have nothing to do with individual effort.

The federal government needs to keep its focus on mission, and the challenge in the new performance based standards will be to accomplish something that none of the current metrics -- from the President's Management Agenda Scorecard, or the PART (assessment tool), or other more quantitative instruments achieve: placing performance in the context of the individual missions and programs of federal agencies and the describing and assessing performance in ways that tell us whether the mission was accomplished or not.


Fairfax, Va.: What would you say are the top three performance strategies an employee should focus on when trying to move up the ladder? And would you say these top three strategies are the same whether you work for the federal government or within the corporate world? Thank you.

Steven L. Katz: First, you have captured the most important step that all employees (federal or corporate) should take, and that is to think strategically about yourself, your position, and what you do every day. Do not assume that you can simply go along to get along and that someone else will take care of the strategy.

Second, instead of viewing the new performance based approach as an assessment tool, demand if necessary that your manager or boss use it as a planning tool -- in particular to achieve two important goals that will counter most of the reasons found across government and the private sector for why people "fall out" of (or quit or get fired) their jobs: the need to close expectation gaps and the lack of engagement or dialogue between employees and managers.

Third, when you think strategically about your performance goals, you need to link them to bigger mission objectives, as well as other specific programmatic goals -- including your boss's goals -- and be able to talk about them in that context. That doesn't mean that you necessarily change how you do your job, but what it does mean is that you have an added responsibility to change how you communicate what you do and ensure that others above you perceive it as helping them achieve their goals.


Chicago, Ill.: I was leafing through the local paper here yesterday and noticed a letter in the "Ask Amy" advice column. It was written by a federal manager in D.C. who was requesting help on how to deal with an employee who she claimed did not respect her. Before writing this letter, this manager decided only to "cater to her" or "ignore her" as potential solutions. I had to laugh at the idea that, rather than thinking about getting appropriate training on how to supervise and deal with problem employees, this manager thought an advice columnist would provide better instruction. (Amy didn't, by the way.) I know budgets are tight, but that's ridiculous. Even though I am all for pay-for-performance as a concept, it is just this type of conduct that makes federal employees nervous about managers controlling their pay. Do you share my reaction to this?

Steven L. Katz: I agree that any time you suggest a new kind of appraisal or assessment tool in the federal government that you force people to deal with the most common challenge faced by managers: Managing people they see as unmanageable.

People fear the new performance-based concepts because they believe that it will be easier for managers to fire the unmanageable, but the real challenge will be in those situations, and they are not necessarily that rare, where the unmanageable are people who are strong headed and good performers.

I have recommended to several top executives at OPM the importance of using the new peformance based system as an opportunity to train managers to confront challenges, including the longstanding, and I believe never ending, challenges of dealing with interpersonal conflict.


Alexandria, Va.: Do you think that job performance ratings and performance-based pay will be used as tools to discriminate against federal employees on the basis of race and sex? I do. Steven L. Katz: People discriminate, systems don't.

However, the secret lining to the performance based approach, and one that I realize that many federal employees don't yet see, is that performance and results reforms are being imposed to hold the people running the agency more accountable, and without data that is provided from below the execusphere it can't be done.

I do not believe that performance based systems are inherently designed to result in bias -- I do believe that the leadership of any agency must stand up strongly against any kind of bias or discrimination -- including making it clear that the implementation of performance based approaches will be reviewed to detect any trace of bias or favoritism. As an employee or manager, you should advocate for that as well as a matter of due diligence.

I have stood firm on these issues throughout my career, and have done so at fairly high levels of the agencies I worked in. It made a difference.


Itchy Falls, Ark.: Most of the Feds I work with are hardworking and dedicated to their departments and the mission. Certainly as much as when I worked for IBM. How much of this whole exercise is driven by sound bites and Congress pandering to news media and public perceptions?

Steven L. Katz: It's real, but whether it's fabulous or not remains to be seen.

As you point out, the politics and media airwars that has accompanied civil service changes in the federal government gives rise to quesitons about the true goals of the reforms.

Frequently, I found that by launching such reforms, people think that everything they are doing is new, and only something that is new is needed. Yet the knowledge base of the Administration and Congress on these issues reflects a narrow bandwidth.

In part this is because prior to the last four years, Congress -- and I speak from experience as a former Counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee under former Senator John Glenn -- addressed civil service reform in very limited ways. Changing from the CSRS to FERS in the benefits world was one, but almost everything else that you might consider progressive was done situationally through demonstration projects and often the most effective ones were ignored. In the White House under the Clinton Administrtaion, just before the cutting of several hundres of thousands of positions began in 1993, OPM Director Jim King took great satisfaction in throwing out the Federal Personnel Manual.

It gets crazier. I'll never forget hearing the former OPM Director Kay Coles James rebuke a federal official at the Excellence in Government Conference two summers ago when he stood up and told her "we're with you, but a lot of what you're talking about as needed in flexible hiring and firing, and performance, we've been doing already through a demonstration project." Her response was "anything you've been doing we don't want to do."

I am hopeful that the current leadership at OMB and OPM will emphasize the positive and utilize the experience of people in government, including those in other agencies besides DHS and DOD who have had performance based systems in place already.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Katz, you've worked for political appointees in your career and at MSPB. Do you think that the new SES pay for performance system will have a negative impact on the willingness of career employees to "blow the whistle" on political appointees or others who are engaged in questionable activities or decision-making and who refuse to discuss it when questions are raised?

Steven L. Katz: The relationship of performance based systems to the continuing need for federal employees to "speak truth to power" is very important matter. I personally not believe that there is enough money in the performance based rewards to prevent any federal employee worth their salt from speaking their mind. That's part of the culture.

My view is that while on the one hand I believe that all federal executives and managers must make very clear that such performance based systems should never be held over anyone's head as a tool for manipulation or retribution, that employees also need to remember that the Whistleblower Protection Act is federal law, and that in utilizing it you also need to be practical and go through the offices in your agency which enable you to file complaints confidentially.


Somewhere in the Bureaucracy...: I'd love to hear your comments and advice to a career Fed (24 years) in the brave new world of A-76. I never used to feel concerned about job security, and have worked hard to get to the position I have now, but I feel threatened--that one day I'll be bounced out of providing direct services (for employees at my agency) and have that passed on to a contractor. Any job that they can paint as not "inherently governmental" is fair game. To me, that's more of a threat than any "pay for performance" concerns. Also, for what it's worth, I predict that the same games that are played in terms of favoritism and promotions will continue under the new system. It's not easy to judge performance based on statistics alone. That being said, I'm trying to think positively--but truthfully I am wary that my job will someday be done by SAIC or Dyncorp...

Steven L. Katz: I share your concerns about the growth of a fragmented government -- that is the combination of career and contractor employees -- and I would be worried too if I were still in the federal government.

However to me the unanswered question is this:

While federal employees will be held to new performance based standards -- will the same standards and requirements be imposed on contractors working in the same agencies? If not, why not, and what other similar standards will be in place?

Managers today face a dual responsibility of managing both workforces, but I often see that in fact it is even more heterogenous because individual contracts each have different performance standards (often with little paralle to the standards that civil servants must live by)-- but they are not necessarily reward based performance standards and the assumption is that contractors will get paid if they perform and won't if they don't.

However, I'm not aware of how well this is measured by procurement and other people -- and so often we hear about tanks that can't shoot straight, cost overuns in construction, and more recently IT systems that were very very expensive and don't work.


Cottage City, Md.: Mr. Katz, I feel you are being more than a little optimistic in suggesting that all the managers want is a proactive and energetic employee. In many cases, they want employees who can make them feel good rather than do good work. And yes, until very recently, I worked under management that was delighted to throw away good work without even knowing how they would replace it. The good work was "old regime," so obviously not really good - anything they bought would be better!

Steven L. Katz: I am optimistic because I believe that if take a downbeat attitude no one will want to listen to you.

I have also found personally that while being proactive and engaging with the people above me takes courage, stamina, and confidence -- that such people need to know you are out there and have something to say. It is often how you say it and with whom you stand in saying it.

If the people above you view that it is an attack or a threat or a criticism, you are right, they'll get their back up.

Another alternative that few people consider in the federal government is to change the people you work for. I prefer to work with people I can be proactive with and I have found them in government and the private sector.


Germantown, Md.: I look forward to the upcoming pay for performance, but without a meaningful mechanism for an appeal process, the system would fail just like the current "automatic" system which at least treats the employees equally for the step increases. My 25 years of experience has shown me that the supervisors ask the employees for list of accomplishments and the second level supervisor has already signed the evaluation prepared by the employee's supervisor. Supervisor rarely explains the reasons for his rating or accomplishments. As chief steward of NTEU Chapter 228, I handled several rating grievances where Step I and Step II were meaningless since the first and second level were the same and usually the Step III was also unsuccessful because the third level supervisor never over ruled the rating decisions of his underling. I have been hearing that supervisory training would solve this problem. However, the pay for performance will be successful only by accountability of supervisors. Steven L. Katz: Steve Barr has informed me that this will be the last question I have time to answer -- thank you for your many questions.

I appreciate your experience as a union official and your desire to ensure that government is well run, and that in the end it is everyone's responsibility to participate in that effort.

However, there is a need to change your role, including shifting your advocacy role as a union official, to become more proactive on substance related to performance.

If I were an agency executive I would welcome that role and something more.

The peformance based culture establishes expectations and peformance plans and that is only meaningful if employees have substantive input with executives and managers on these plans.

My advice is to evolve your role by creating a working group or other mechanism that ensures that execs and managers hold these discussions about where the agency and offices they lead are headed -- from the standpoint of mission -- not just measurements. Then put performance objectives and rewards in place to reflect accomplishing those goals and others that employees feel are an essential part of achieving the agency's mission.


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