A panel of two union leaders and two top federal officials convened at The Washington Post the other day to discuss the Bush administration's goal of replacing the General Schedule pay system with one that more strongly links pay raises to annual performance evaluations at all federal agencies. Such changes are underway at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. The White House wants permission from Congress to make similar changes government-wide.

The panelists were asked to respond to a common employee fear about the proposed system -- that managers will slant annual evaluations to reward favored workers -- and explain what could be done to prevent such cronyism. Here is what they said:

Clay Johnson III, deputy director, Office of Management and Budget:

"You hold the manager accountable for being a good manager. That means you hold them accountable for giving their employees good performance evaluations. You look at, did they at the beginning of the year sit down with each of their employees and define what . . . meets expectations, exceeds expectations? . . . Is there good comment about how the person performed relative to those mutually agreed goals? Is there good communication in writing? . . . And if the employee is not satisfied with the evaluation, all the regular appeals rights still exist. So you have lots of checks and balances. "

David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office:

"I think what we have to recognize is, number one, there is no perfect performance appraisal system on the planet, and there never will be. Number two, that every performance appraisal system has a certain degree of subjectivity in it, and always will. And so then what you have to say is, 'What do you have to do to make sure you've got a system in place that maximizes the chance of consistency, and minimizes the chance of inequity?'

Any [plan] should have . . . specific criteria and standards that would have to be met. . . . Those criteria might include: a modern, competency-level-based system that lays things out upfront, in writing. This is what we expect you to do. This is what 'meets expectations' is. This is what an 'outstanding' or 'role model' or 'exceeds' is. This is what 'below-expected' is. There would have to be training and development, and there would also have to be certain checks and balances . . . . Transparency is a very powerful force and I think transparency has a role to play here. . . . If they don't do all of things, then I think it could be a disaster."

John Gage, president, American Federation of Government Employees:

"Even the new performance standards that we saw at DHS, I mean, this is a chance for supervisors to measure the song in your heart. There's nothing objective about it. And on the transparency issue, they are telling the supervisors, 'We'll give you something the employee won't see, as how you can really try to measure performance.' Well, if the employee is to see, objectively, what he is supposed to do, but the supervisor has their little crib sheet on really what the down and dirty to implement those things are, that's not transparent. So I hear what you are saying, Clay, and I hear what you are saying, David. I respect both of you. But what you're saying is not what we're seeing."

Colleen M. Kelley, president, National Treasury Employees Union:

"I think it [cronyism] is likely to happen, and I think it is more likely to happen in a system that has very little structure to it and is very vague and doesn't have any credibility with employees. I don't doubt this happens today to some extent, but it will be exacerbated because there won't be a lot of known rules and so much more will be in the hands of these managers, who aren't trained and then aren't supported when they try to make distinctions between employees. . . . In my experience today, most federal managers are promoted because they are really, really good at the technical job that they did at the front line. It's not because they are good leaders or have management skills or anything else. And the government does not do much training. They train them about the stats they have to deliver, but not on how to be a leader."

-- Christopher Lee