Is the Annual Performance Review the Goof-Off's Best Friend?

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

No drumroll today. We'll go straight to the quote:

"If you want to get rid of the obnoxious goof-offs in government, you first have to get rid of the annual performance appraisal. You read that correctly: Abolish the yearly personnel review."

This radical proposal appears in the January edition of "Bob Behn's Public Management Report, " in which Robert D. Behn , a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a longtime public policy analyst, makes the case that annual performance reviews undermine agencies' ability to fire truly bad employees.

Behn argues that most agency managers have only two choices when trying to fire employees who don't pull their weight: Launch an all-out attack using the full powers of the personnel system, or shrug off their lackluster performance and give the employee a passing grade, such as "meets expectations" or "satisfactory."

Agency managers are not dumb or incompetent in their handling of poor performers, but they understand that there is only so much time in the week, the month and the year, Behn says. Managers can focus on a few important problems and try to make a difference on behalf of taxpayers, or they can go to war with employees who know the workplace rules and are "willing and able to use them" to protect their jobs, Behn writes.

Getting rid of a problem employee usually doesn't make the manager's list of priorities, and so the poor performer's personnel folder accumulates a long string of "meets expectations," Behn says. When a new manager takes over and wants to get rid of the bad worker, the personnel folder thwarts the new boss by making it impossible to saw off the deadwood, Behn concludes.

Behn knows his idea of abolishing the annual ritual probably won't win many converts. The civil service system has been built around the idea of merit and due process, and eliminating job performance appraisals probably wouldn't get much support from personnel officials, employment lawyers, union leaders or members of Congress.

If anything, annual job ratings seem likely to take on even more importance in the government in coming years.

The Defense and Homeland Security departments view performance evaluations as a critical part of their new pay-for-performance systems. The Pentagon, for example, plans to make written evaluations a part of the official record used in making decisions on pay raises and promotions.

Bush administration officials contend that rules demanding a more rigorous evaluation process will help hold more managers accountable for the performance of their employees and organizations. In their view, the new emphasis on job ratings will prompt managers to hold more conversations with their employees about performance-related issues.

But Behn suggests that the annual personnel appraisal wastes time and has had a pernicious effect by helping goof-offs hang on to their jobs. He would modify the system so that managers could put commendations, critiques or nothing in employee personnel files.

Over time, an empty personnel folder "would itself be damning evidence of incompetence," Behn writes.

There's no good estimate of how many poor performers are on the federal payroll. Although most experts say the number is relatively small, they agree that their impact can be substantial, because it takes only one bad apple to spoil a workplace.

In an interview, Behn acknowledged that his idea is not perfect. "But I think mindlessly pursuing this practice has a significant consequence. The insulation of poor performers against being fired is, by definition, a bad policy."

As for his proposal, Behn added, "I suspect all sorts of people will get annoyed at this, but it would be nice if someone really tried it."

Next Stop, Cleveland

Michael D. Dovilla , executive director of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, is returning to Cleveland, his home town, and plans to continue in public service, the Office of Personnel Management said.

Dovilla, who previously worked for Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), is the first executive director of the interagency council, created by Congress in 2002 to help set federal workforce policies. Its membership includes top personnel chiefs from 24 agencies.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company