New OMB performance mgmt. guidance comes down too harshly on poor performers, experts say

Human capital experts have long argued federal managers lack the tools they need to be good supervisors — leaders who empower their employees to perform at a high level, while recruiting and retaining new talent and eliminating those who can’t or refuse to meet their agency’s mission.

The Office of Management and Budget’s recent government restructuring memo acknowledges those challenges and even sets agencies on a path to tackle some of them, but some experts say the emphasis on poor performers in the guidance is too strong.

“The real issue is that it’s difficult to address poor performance, but poor performance is just one part of a larger and more complex workforce management issue that you need to address through the performance management system,” said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association.

The guidance instructs agencies to develop performance management plans that ensure their managers and supervisors have the tools they need to deal with poor performance, misconduct and accountability challenges but lacks detail in helping leaders recruit and retain talented, high-performing people, said Margot Conrad, director of education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service.

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“You also need to look on the flip side and see what kind of incentives you can provide your employees, your top performers, to stay,” she said. “Small incentives like that could go a long way.”

Sally Jaggar, a senior adviser for the National Academy of Public Administration and a former executive at the Government Accountability Office, said restructuring gives agencies a great opportunity to be innovative and rethink the way they deliver the mission to the public.

But the guidance points too often to accountability issues and doesn’t suggest how agencies can duplicate the work that’s already done well, she said.

“It beats the same old, dead horse about [the] people who aren’t doing good that should be dealt with, rather than talking about how to strengthen the role that people have in terms of improving government,” Jaggar said. “You want an environment that taps into [those] strengths and the good ideas. Remember the old total quality management concept, that the people who were on the factory floor are the ones who know what should be done to improve things.”

Agencies have until June 30 to develop plans to “maximize employee performance” that should focus on five specific areas.

First, OMB wants agencies to review and update their formal policies to ensure they don’t create “any unnecessary barriers for addressing poor performance” and misconduct, the memo said.

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“Agencies should remove steps not required in statute/regulation to streamline processes to the maximum extent,” OMB said. “In addition, as required once the Administrative Leave Act implementing regulations are finalized, policies should incorporate expectations for limiting the use of unnecessary administrative leave and lay out alternatives.”

Second, OMB wants agencies to be more transparent with performance improvement plans and keep data on how many employees are on them and whether they improved their performance.

In addition, agencies must develop timelines for putting managers, supervisors and senior executives through training sessions on managing employee performance and conduct. Plans should also describe how agencies will ensure managers and supervisors are holding their employees accountable and suggests those mechanisms should be a part of their own performance plans.

Finally, agencies must develop a mechanism or a manager support board to help leaders make difficult and often sudden decisions on employee misconduct.

Jaggar said she hopes agency leaders will ask their employees for input as they craft these plans.

“The most important function that a leader has is to make sure that the people who are working for him or her have a clear line of sight to what the mission is of the organization overall and what their role is in achieving that mission,” she said.

“Sometimes a person who may have had a lackadaisical approach to what they were doing might be really motivated and energized and inspired to perform better under [these] new circumstances,” Jaggar added. “People do rise to the occasion under certain circumstances.”

The memo also specifies that agencies must still meet any collective bargaining obligations related to workforce accountability and performance management.

Once each agency develops its plans further, they’ll incorporate them as a governmentwide workforce priority into their strategic plans or human capital operating plans. But Valdez said he sees a danger in having each agency develop individual strategies for tackling employee performance and accountability — rather than gathering a more conceptual governmentwide approach.

“Letting 1,000 flowers bloom is perhaps not the optimal way to go about this, and there could be room here for some very creative people to come up with a performance assessment structure that would be governmentwide that would have certain principles and certain characteristics that would reward … risk-tasking, innovation, entrepreneurship and provide managers with the tools to reward those individuals who are the high performers,” Valdez said.

He pointed to the SES performance appraisal system as an example of a governmentwide program that has its flaws but generally works for most senior executives.

President Donald Trump indicated on the campaign trail that he intended to find ways to hold poor agency performers accountable.

Congress too has focused on the accountability issue, particularly at the Veterans Affairs Department, in recent years. Several pieces of legislation that attempt to shorten disciplinary and firing procedures for federal employees have passed the House, but few have made it through the Senate.

Agencies looking to removing barriers in the disciplinary process may face tough congressional fights.

VA has spent the past two years working through legislative changes with Congress but hasn’t been able to pass new procedures since the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability of 2014. The Justice Department last year found one aspect of the bill unconstitutional.