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Watchdog says awards for GSA executives were excessive; system lacked transparency

The General Services Administration doled out cash awards to senior executives based on votes of confidence by colleagues who recognized their efforts at grooming talent and running “terrific and productive meetings,” a new report reveals.

The “Peer-2-Peer” awards, which cost taxpayers $160,000 between fiscal 2009 and 2011,  are among several flaws and violations of federal regulations the agency’s inspector general found in a review of GSA’s system of giving awards and bonuses and reviewing the performance of its top executives.

The report, released late Thursday by Inspector General Brian D. Miller, found a system that lacked transparency and hid some of its practices from the Office of Personnel Management, the federal personnel agency. Executivesメ rights to appeal their reviews were not protected, and many bonuses and cash awards were not properly vetted and were made for questionable reasons, Miller found.

The problems “illustrate a willingness by the GSA to violate legal requirements that resulted in an opaque evaluation and award system,” the inspector general wrote. Such a “manufactured process” made it impossible to tell whether the awards were valid, he added.

The report, covering fiscal years 2009 to 2011, comes 13 months after Miller revealed that GSAメs Public Buildings Service held a lavish, four-day conference off the Las Vegas Strip for 300 employees in its western outposts. Details of after-hours parties, a mind reader and bicycle training exercise showed a casual spending culture that led to the resignation of the agencyメs administrator, Martha Johnson, and more than a dozen other top officials.

The 2010 Western Regions conference became a symbol of government waste at an agency that took its efforts to emulate private-sector innovation in government acquisitions and real estate too far.

The executives at the center of the Las Vegas scandal had received hefty bonuses even as the conference was under investigation. Miller assigned his staff to find out whether the GSA’s culture of overly generous bonuses went beyond Las Vegas. It turns out it did.

Miller recommends that the GSA establish better standards for performance reviews and awards and training for the board that oversees them, better record keeping and a clear policy for rewarding good work.

GSA officials agreed with the reportメs findings and pledged to redouble their efforts to reform the system of performance reviews for executives and managers. throughout the agency.

Dan Tangherlini, appointed by President Obama last year to clean up the agency, has made numerous changes to change its culture. Bonuses have been cut by 85ᅠpercent, officials said.

“The entire performance awards system has been reviewed, and the new leadership at GSA has worked to reform the system,” GSA spokesman Dan Cruz said in a statement. “As a result, GSA no longer has a peer to peer awards system … bonuses are coming down to their lowest levels in five years.”

On Friday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) announced a bipartisan bill that would prohibit any federal agency from giving performance awards to members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) while the budget cuts known as sequestration are in effect.

“The idea that some of the highest paid federal government employees could be getting bonuses while others are being furloughed is outrageous,” McCaskill said in a statement. She is sponsoring the legislation with Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.).

The government spent more than $340 million on cash bonuses for senior executive employees between 2008 and 2011, according to Office of Personnel Management data compiled by McCaskill’s office.

Annual salaries for SES employees in 2013 range from $119,554 to $179,700, and senior executives make up less than 1ᅠpercent of the federal workforce.

Miller found that the GSA failed to follow federal rules on performance reviews, denying executives the right to see their ratings and challenge them until it was too late in the process, the report released Thursday found. Some executives received their reviews months before the appraisal period ended, with their supervisors basing their rating on how they thought the employees would perform.

For the three years under review, 71 executives received a total of 702 “Peer-2-Peer” performance awards, a $160,700 expense by taxpayers, the inspector general found. Many of these executives also received traditional bonuses.

Martha Johnson started the “Peer-2-Peer” system to encourage and reward leadership skills. But the award criteria consisted of questions such as, like “Who relishes and champions change?,” “Who seeks and uses feedback from others?” and “Who runs terrific and productive meetings?”

One executive received $3,200 in peer awards, the inspector general found.

Other “special act” awards included $6,000 for a career executive’s contributions to the presidential transition.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.

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