The Bush administration is about to put federal managers on the spot.
A proposed overhaul of federal pay would require agencies to set up rigorous systems for evaluating the job performance of employees, require managers to use that data to assign job ratings and then use those ratings to determine annual pay raises.
Clay Johnson III, the president's management guru, says he knows that many managers are not up to par in this area, but he expects agencies to provide them with training and hold them accountable for how they manage their workforces.
"If we were to hand the average manager in the federal government a form and say give a fair and unbiased evaluation of your employees . . . they wouldn't be able to do it," Johnson told reporters last week.
Twenty percent of federal managers "would do a pretty good job," and 20 percent "wouldn't have a clue," he said. The rest probably could -- if provided with training and mentoring on how to measure job performance and evaluate employees, Johnson said.
A manager, Johnson said, "is somebody who helps his or her people do their work. A small portion of our people are prepared to do that."
Johnson's comments came as the administration announced a plan to replace the decades-old, government-wide General Schedule by 2010. The plan would require agencies to set salaries and raises based on occupations, national and local market rates and job performance. Employees who got poor marks would not get a raise, and some might be given 90 days to pump up their performance or risk being fired.
The administration's plan needs the approval of Congress. Johnson, a deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, said he has no timetable to win approval but hopes to stir "an informed debate" in coming weeks.
Johnson thinks the time is right to shake up federal pay. Large numbers of employees are projected to retire in the next few years, providing agencies with the opportunity to hire and promote people who will be good managers, he said. Some surveys, however, show that college graduates and young people do not seek federal employment because they see "too much bureaucracy," Johnson said.
"If we want to be good at hiring people, we've got to be a place where people can come in here and contribute, grow professionally and be recognized," he said.
Key parts of the administration's plan hinge on federal managers to demonstrate that they are evaluating their employees in a fair and transparent manner. According to the most recent tally, the government has 207,246 career supervisors and managers and 1,279 supervisors and managers who hold their jobs through a political or limited-term appointment.
Under the administration's plan, agencies would submit their plans to administer performance-based pay to the Office of Personnel Management for approval. Once the systems began, managers would be required to clearly define, and put in writing, what is expected of their employees, including how to garner a top rating, Johnson said.
Managers also would provide employees with frequent feedback on their job performance, he said.
"This is not about people working harder," Johnson said. "This is about people growing professionally."
Employee surveys show that federal workers, compared with private-sector workers, are less satisfied with their supervisors, their organization, their training and the information they receive from management, Johnson said. Only about a third of federal employees in a recent survey said their agency takes steps to deal with poor performers.
To turn around those perceptions, Johnson said agencies would train managers and employees on how distinctions are made in job performance. Training costs will probably vary among agencies, he said, but he noted that the Department of Homeland Security, which is developing plans for its new performance-based pay system, estimates that training will cost about $3,000 a person.
Training, however, is not the sole solution to the government's managerial problems, Johnson said.
"The most important thing to get somebody to be a good manager is to hold them accountable," he said. "You can throw all the training in the world at somebody and unless they know they are going to be held accountable . . . it is going to go in one ear and out the other."