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Federal Diary

New Personnel Systems Offer Ways to Play Up Performance

By Stephen Barr
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C02

Pay raises tied to performance ratings. Performance ratings linked to performance appraisals.

Job appraisals, job evaluations, annual employee reviews -- whatever an agency calls them -- will soon be taking on a more important role inside the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

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Federal Diary Page

Changes in the personnel systems at the departments will give managers more discretion over pay raises and over setting salaries for new employees. In theory, the move to performance-based pay will allow the two departments to more easily steer higher raises to their stars. It's an approach the Bush administration hopes to spread across government.

As Jonathan D. Breul, a former federal official, put it, "The biggest contributors will get the biggest rewards, and the lowest contributors will know where they stand."

The changes have drawn union opposition, stirred anxiety among some employees and left many with a wait-and-see attitude. But public policy experts are recommending that employees step forward and try to influence the personnel changes rather than assume that they are a passing management fad.

"Unlike in the past, waiting it out is not a good strategy," said Steven L. Katz, who has worked in the legislative and executive branches. "You only hurt yourself and your agency if you decide to hide in the bureaucracy."

Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said that "fair or not," the two departments are "moving forward, and it is in everyone's interest that the changes work."

More so than in the past, employees will need to sell themselves -- make sure management knows what they do and why their jobs are important.

When evaluation time rolls around, it won't be enough for employees to simply list what they did on the job over the last year. Employees also will be expected to show how they contributed to the agency's mission and how their accomplishments align with the strategic goals of their agency.

Employees will be responsible for knowing the performance standards for their jobs and how they are applied, said Susan Kladiva, who helped develop the performance management system at the Government Accountability Office.

If something is not clear, employees should seek clarification, she said. If the standards appear to change during the rating cycle, employees should meet with their supervisors to be certain they know what is expected of them. Never, she said, "sit back and say, 'My supervisor didn't tell me.' "

Employees should keep an ongoing record that shows how they saved taxpayer dollars, brought projects in on time and met their targets -- "toot their own horn," as Breul said.

Added Kladiva: "Keep it real. Don't do a puff piece."

Breul, who worked 32 years in the government before becoming a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, said employees also "need to set personal development goals and continue to grow. They are going to be working in an increasingly challenging workplace" and should talk to their managers about opportunities for career development.

Katz, who recently wrote "Lion Taming: Working Successfully With Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers," said employees have to create respect for what they do. He recommends that employees team up with colleagues, including their supervisors, to influence how management sets performance standards.

"If you approach this as Us against Them, it is the equivalent of sticking your head in the lion's mouth," he said.

Breul recommends that employees work to understand how their part of the organization is performing against management objectives and how their office stacks up against other groups.

"Performance will be determined not only by how well you do individually but how you compare to others," he said. "There is a bit of a horse race here."

Managers, of course, will share responsibility for making the new systems work.

"It's not in the government's interest to develop and deliver a pay system that makes good performers unhappy," said Doris Hausser, a senior policy adviser at the Office of Personnel Management. "We want to be smart about it, and being smart means not letting the pay system become something that kind of destroys morale."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com

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