The federal government plans to set new standards for how it evaluates the performance of its top executives below the political appointee level, saying agencies are inconsistent in those job ratings which translate into bonuses and increases in basic salary.

OPM Director John Berry (Juana Arias)

The SES is a personnel system for employees above mid-management but not subject to Senate confirmation, and is the highest level a career federal employee typically can reach. SES members are paid within a range that reaches up to $179,700. Their salary rates are determined in part by their performance ratings, and they also are eligible for ratings-based bonuses reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Berry said, however, that the “lack of uniformity complicates the federal government’s ability and success to promote simplicity and accountability in managing executive performance.” In response, a task force with members from 10 agencies, including Berry’s own Office of Personnel Management, has started work with a goal of producing a standard design by the end of September.

The new standards would then be phased in over two years, according to the memo.

OPM’s most recent report on SES performance showed that in 2009, nearly half of execs were rated at the highest possible level. Of those evaluated under a five-level system, 49 percent were rated at the top level and another 41 percent at the next-highest level. Of those rated under a four-level system, 38 percent were rated at the top level and all the rest at the next level down.

Overall, only one out of the more than 6,600 career executives was rated as performing at an unacceptable level.

However, there were large differences in ratings by agencies. Among agencies with at least 200 SES members, the portion rated at the highest level ranged from about two thirds at the Social Security Administration, NASA, and the Justice and Health and Human Services departments to about one third at the Defense, Energy and Interior departments.

The variation was even wider among smaller agencies, with the Agency for International Development and the National Science Foundation rating eight tenths of their executives at the highest level, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and OPM itself gave top ratings to only three-tenths of their SES members.

In 2009 there were about an additional 800 non-career SES members.