The low rate at which federal employees are fired for poor performance doesn’t prove the government accepts it but instead “could actually be a positive sign,” the agency that decides appeals of discipline against federal employees has said.

A report from the Merit Systems Protection Board in effect responds to members of Congress and others who contend that federal managers don’t care, or don’t dare, to take disciplinary action because of civil service protections.

“The number of employees removed for poor performance should not be used as a measure of an agency’s commitment to properly managing the performance of its employees,” said the report issued Tuesday.

In addition to hearing appeals, the MSPB conducts studies of federal workplace issues. In a report based on a survey the agency conducted and other research, MSPB identified three keys to good management of employees’ performance: the work unit having sufficient resources to get the job done; training of supervisors on setting and enforcing expectations; and accurate standards to measure performance.

It said that the more those factors are present, the more likely supervisors are to say they can effectively deal with poor performers, including by helping them improve their work or firing them if necessary — and the less likely they are to say they have poor performers among their employees in the first place.

“This data is one reason why examining removal rates is not a good method for assessing whether an agency is properly managing employee performance. If the agency is successful in preventing poor performance and addressing it when it does occur, removals would become unnecessary. In that way, a small number of performance-based removals could actually be a positive sign,” MSPB said.

“Of course, it could also be indicative of an agency that fails to remove those in need of removal,” it added.

Federal agencies use formal performance rating programs for almost all of their career employees, typically with five levels. The ratings are used in deciding on promotions, merit pay increases, cash awards or, more rarely, discipline. Except in the most severe cases, before being disciplined low-performing employees must be given notice of their shortcomings and the support to help them improve over a defined time.

Of the 2.1 million federal employees in a government database excluding the U.S. Postal Service, intelligence agencies and certain other categories, about 10,000 are fired for either poor performance or misconduct each year. Among the roughly 200,000 who leave each year, the large majority resign, retire or reach the end of a temporary appointment.

That low rate of firing has been cited in proposals to force agencies to take action and to restrict employee rights to appeal through the MSPB or other channels, commonly a long and contentious process. Most of the support  comes from Republicans, although Congress has passed several measures on a bipartisan basis, including a law enacted this year shortening the appeal process for front-line employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs and restricting senior employees there to an in-house process. And last week the House unanimously passed and sent to the White House a bill requiring that agencies discipline officials who retaliate against whistleblowers, including mandatory firing for a second offense.

Individual employees, too, commonly express dissatisfaction with how agencies handle poor performers among their co-workers. In an annual governmentwide survey, one of the highest negatives each year involves whether steps are taken to deal with employees who cannot or will not improve their performance — this year only 34 percent agreed while 42 percent disagreed, with the rest neutral.

Much of the argument that the government doesn’t sufficiently hold its employees accountable has focused on misconduct rather than on performance. The database of removals does not distinguish between the two; in the government system, especially poor performance can be deemed to be misconduct, as well. The firing figures further do not reflect the unknown number of employees who quit to avoid having a firing on their records.

As in a previous report, the MSPB said that firing is just one of the ways to deal with a poor performer, adding that “a performance-based removal action is not even the most common of these.”

In the MSPB’s survey, among supervisors who said they had had a poor performer who is no longer in the organization, 57 percent said the employee resigned, retired or left to work elsewhere; 15 percent said the employee was removed for performance reasons; 13 percent said the employee was removed for conduct reasons; 7 percent said the employee was moved to a different position; and the rest cited other outcomes.

“Because successful performance management can reduce the need to remove an employee, removal data is not a good measure for agency performance management metrics. . . . It is understandable why stakeholders may want an easily calculated proxy for determining if agencies are properly managing the performance of their employees. Unfortunately, removal data cannot accurately serve this function,” the report said.