A new working group of the Chief Human Capital Officer’s Council is fast tracking recommendations for a revamped performance ratings and management system for civilian employees.
Michael Kane, CHCO for the Energy Department and co-chairman of the working group, said he expects the group to submit options to improve how federal managers measure and rate employees and a project plan to the Office of Personnel Management in the next 30 days.
“One way we are going to do that is not try to do it as a single body,” Kane said after a panel discussion on workforce issues at the IRMCO conference Wednesday. “Among the experts in the room, we will break it down into a number of working groups that are going to work in parallel. We will practice what we preach here. It’s all about inclusion. It’s all about getting diverse viewpoints. We will get that and try to integrate that as a single team.”
Once the working group makes its recommendations to OPM, it also will submit them to the National Labor-Management Council, which brings together agencies and employee unions to discuss issues.
OPM Director John Berry, who also spoke at IRMCO, said performance management is a weak link in agencies. He said reviews are too infrequent and rote, and there is too little constructive feedback.
“The first step in fixing performance management is understanding the missions of the federal workforce and how those missions are changing,” Berry said. “And those missions really need to inform us when we think of what is the type of workforce and workplace we want to build for the future.”
The working group met for the first time Tuesday and Kane said the room was filled with CHCOs.
“We had people who were very concerned about performance,” Kane said. “It’s the lifeblood of the organization. It’s how we reward and retain employees. That is really what John Berry is getting at. Is performance and performance appraisals communicating the right message? Are we across the government encouraging the right types of activities? Are we engendering in employees the right desires, the right attributes?”
Kane added that the group is looking at whether agencies are applying performance management across the government consistently, if they are measuring the right things, and do employees value how they are rated.
“We need to be more consistent in how we grade,” he said. “Many of the skill sets the government has, they are not unique among agencies. A large number of them are the same types of disciplines and skills.”
Janie Payne, the CHCO for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the co-chairwoman of the working group, said there are several components the working group will look at, including ensuring employees have regular feedback.
“The people in that meeting were charged with this topic and everyone is engaged and wants to be a part and generate new ideas,” she said.
At the meeting, CHCOs said managers need more training around performance management, Paine said.
Berry said there are a few basics any performance system must include.
“What if, when setting performance standards, we engaged our employees and got clear about expectations?” Berry asked. “What if we made sure performance standards were detailed, objective, aligned to agency mission and goals, and had employee buy-in; that they weren’t just dictated from on high? Next, put systems in place to hold people accountable. Many people have highly measurable jobs in the government, such as those who adjudicate benefits claims at OPM. For them, a measure of production, timeliness and accuracy is relatively easy, and managers should get real with their employees about what constitutes a good job. For employees with harder to measure tasks, a good manager can still create processes where deadlines are set and quality is measured. The key to improving performance is frequent, consistent feedback.”
Berry said the new system will separate pay from performance as well. He said studies in the public and private sectors show constructive and consistent feedback tends to be a far more powerful and predictable motivator than pay.
“Perhaps the best way to get real about performance ratings is to simplify them,” he said. “If most employees do a good job and small variations in year-end performance awards don’t actually lead to improved performance, why do we spend so much time parsing people into five categories? Let’s give the well over 80 percent of people who are doing a good job three things: a pat on the back, frequent feedback about how they might improve further, and the training they need to get there. And let’s call our true top performers outstanding and recognize them in a way that incentivizes better performance. Sometimes, instead of a little cash, a self-motivated high performer will be more inspired by increased public recognition and greater opportunities to innovate. Cash shouldn’t be the default reward.”
Kane said by linking pay into performance, the issues become more emotional and harder to do.
“Let’s figure out how we grade, why we grade and how we make it meaningful and then let’s add the pay to it,” he said.
Kane and Paine say the current performance system isn’t all bad. Paine said there is a basic foundation that will be kept, especially around how managers set expectations and link it to the agency’s strategic goals
Kane added that the early focus of this effort is on making feedback more timely and direct.
Berry said a new performance system will go a long way to ensuring agencies are recruiting and retaining the best employees.
“I believe strongly the path to the best results at the lowest cost is to build that type of high performance culture inside government, through a new performance management system,” he said. “One that unleashes our employees’ creativity and productivity.”