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OPM's John Berry calls for new performance-review system for federal workers

Thursday, March 17, 2011; 12:37 AM

John Berry's call for a new federal performance-management system represents an evolution in the Obama administration's approach to the General Schedule and perhaps a reprieve for that classification system covering most federal workers.

In prepared remarks to the Interagency Resources Management Conference at Gallaudet University's Kellogg Conference Hotel on Wednesday, the Office of Personnel Management director spoke of a new system that would replace the current methods of performance reviews, which he said are "infrequent and rote."

The current review process "seems to take place in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average," said Berry, who prefers to be called the government's "chief people person." "If that doesn't make our performance ratings suspect, I don't know what would."

Despite his criticism of the system, Berry made it clear that he is not talking about the end of the 60-year-old General Schedule, as he had previously. That change in thinking will please federal labor leaders who strongly defend the GS against attempts to replace it with "pay for performance" systems.

"We have flexibility under current law to encourage and reward excellence and eliminate mediocrity," Berry said in the speech. He offered "a basic blueprint for changing the way we manage personnel performance, and ultimately organizational performance, without changing the law or the pay system."

The push for a new system within the confines of current law is a change from the approach Berry advocated in the months after taking office two years ago.

In a November 2009 speech at his alma mater, the Maxwell School of public affairs at Syracuse University, Berry urged "comprehensive reform of our civil service system."

"We could limp along for a few more years in the current GS system," he said then, "or we can seize this moment to build something new."

The moment apparently passed. And not a moment too soon for union leaders.

The General Schedule "has both merit and market-based components," Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said last week as she defended the GS before a House federal workforce subcommittee. "Within-grade and career-ladder promotions are subject to merit standards. There is limited ability for favoritism, discrimination or other nonmerit determinations to come into play. But there is also flexibility. Non-performers can be denied merit pay increases, and outstanding performers can be given many rewards, including quality step increases, annual leave, as well as retention and recruitment bonuses."

While defending the GS system, organized labor also is willing to make changes in it.

"I think we can . . . really make some very creative changes" to things such as within-grade pay raises, often called step increases, said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Gage said federal workers would not object to having those increases more directly linked to performance. Currently, the increases are largely based on longevity.

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