Performance awards for senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs have drawn much attention on Capitol Hill lately, but the VA is about in line with the rest of the government in that area, according to the latest government data.

Four-tenths of career VA senior executives were rated at the highest level during fiscal 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, compared with the government-wide figure of nearly half. In paying performance awards to three-fourths of its execs in recent years, the department was just about on the average.

The Senior Executive Service falls between political appointees who set policies and mid-level managers who handle day-to-day agency operations. It provides performance-based awards in addition to yearly salaries that range roughly from $120,000 to $180,000. The large majority of SES members are career employees, with the rest political or temporary appointees.

The performance of VA’s senior executives has been a focus of several initiatives in Congress lately in reaction to the patient care record-keeping scandal and longstanding concerns about overall quality of care and the backlog of disability claims.

The House has passed legislation barring performance awards for any VA senior executives for five years, while the Senate has added language to a spending bill banning awards to executives in VA’s health branch until recommendations from an ongoing IG investigation into patient record-keeping practices are carried out.

The House also has approved a bill to allow the VA secretary to fire or demote executives more easily, and the Senate spending bill on VA includes  similar language. The full Senate could consider that bill in late June but meanwhile the chamber might take up a separate measure.

In 2002-2003,  three fourths of execs government-wide were rated at the highest possible level — “outstanding,” or its equivalent. The Bush administration then ordered agencies to tighten their policies, resulting in a drop to 43 percent in 2005-2006. Since then that share has risen slightly.

Of the 6,858 career senior execs in 2010, only four received the lowest possible rating of unacceptable, and only another 21 received the next-lowest rating of minimally successful. Those data were not broken down by agency.

At the time, most agencies used five-level rating systems, although some used four levels. In the former group, the average value of a performance award was about $13,400 for those with top rating and about $8,300 for those with the second-highest rating; in the latter group, the averages were about $14,100 and $6,400, respectively.

Under a 2012 directive, all agencies must use five-level systems.

(Graphics by Josh Hicks and Eric Yoder)