Is it likely that 99 percent of staffers in any workplace are “fully successful” or better?

That’s how highly federal employees are rated, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), as my colleague Lisa Rein reported.

GAO looked at 2013 ratings for almost 1.2 million staffers, not including Senior Executive Service (SES) members. The study found that only 0.3 percent were rated as minimally successful and 0.1 percent as unacceptable.

“The transparency and credibility of the performance management process is enhanced when meaningful performance distinctions are made — it helps ensure that promotion, pay, bonus, staffing, and other rewards and recognition decisions are based on employees’ performance and results,” GAO said.

Feds deserve much respect, but rating more than 99 percent as fully successful strains credibility. It diminishes the truly successful and could deny the less successful the assistance they need to improve. The report gives a boost to those who seek to overhaul the civil service system, which critics say is short on employee accountability. Federal employee unions have not been anxious to embrace civil service reform, though there are indications that is changing.

“The system is obviously not working in that it’s not providing meaningful differentiation between solid employees and truly exceptional ones,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which studies the federal workforce. “It’s not being implemented consistently or with the original intent of what it means to be ‘outstanding’ or ‘fully successful.’”

Citing the Partnership’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, which is based on a federal survey of government employees, Stier said many staffers are not satisfied with the rating system. “Only 30.8 percent of non-SES staff—the group highlighted in the GAO report—responded positively to the question ‘In my work unit, differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way,’” Stier said.

If the 99 percent figure exaggerates, is it the fault of the evaluation system or the evaluators, the supervisors who rate their staffs?

Both, says William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

“Most managers have a difficult time with frank and honest discussions about performance,” Dougan said. “I do believe that by and large a very large percentage of federal employees are doing a fine job. Is it 99 percent? I’m not convinced. I think that’s a little high.”

Dougan also pointed to a confusing system with various rating tiers that differ among agencies.

“That’s part of the problem,” he said.

Dougan supports performance management and appraisal system changes now being implemented for Defense Department employees. The changes call for improved manager training, continuous performance monitoring and consistency among Pentagon agencies.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said the high ratings might be the positive byproduct of another part of the civil service system that is often criticized — the lengthy hiring process.

“Could it be that the careful scrutiny and open competition among applicants for federal jobs produces a workforce of highly skilled, responsible, productive employees? Cox asked. “If agencies take care to hire the best possible people, and in turn almost all of those people do at least everything they’re asked to do in a satisfactory manner, where is the problem?”

Yet, AFGE, the largest federal union, is quietly supporting a bill that would push civil service reform in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Veterans First Act, sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, would allow the department to more quickly fire employees for poor performance or misconduct. The bill would cut the advance notice of termination provided to rank and file workers from 30 days to 10, according to Isakson’s office. They also would have just 10 days to file an appeal with the Merit System Protection Board (MSPB). These appeals generally must be filed within 30 days, according to MSPB, a quasi-judicial body that hears federal employee appeals.

Other employee groups have blasted the bill for “opening the door to partisan political abuse in myriad ways” against senior executives. AFGE did not respond to detailed questions about its support of the legislation, but it has said it “worked diligently with Congress and the Administration to defend employees’ basic right to due process, and have achieved vast improvements to critical parts of the bill as a result. For that reason we support passage of the Senate bill.”

While civil service reform is starting to move, the goal should not be to lower the number of workers who are rated fully successful, just for numbers sake.

“It should be to build a performance management system that provides greater accountability and greater communication with employees about what they can do to be successful,” Stier said. “The best performance management systems are those that allow for real-time, ongoing, two-way communication about how an employee is doing and how they can improve.”

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