Dec 31 2009

Raise the Bar

Agencies turn to technology to help improve employee performance.

Photo: Ron Aira
"Agencies should be using new solutions to improve employee performance," says OPM's Norm Enger.

How can the government boost employee performance when only 29 percent of federal workers think that their managers recognize differences in performance in any meaningful way and only 27 percent think that agencies take steps to address poor performance?

Statistics such as these from last year's Federal Human Capital Survey by the Office of Personnel Management are real morale killers, acknowledges Dave McClure, director of government research for Gartner of Stamford, Conn.

Despite these perceptions, efforts to change the ways employees are hired, reviewed and compensated have gained steam since human capital was included as one of the five business focuses on the President's Management Agenda in 2001. President Bush has made reforming civil service a priority, promoted personnel system reforms at the Defense and Homeland Security departments, and proposed scrapping the General Schedule altogether.

This emphasis on pay for performance is changing how managers monitor and try to affect the work done by their employees. The Government Accountability Office has laid out six steps to help managers tie employee compensation to the work they do:

  • Focus on a set of values and objectives to guide pay.
  • Examine the value of employees' total compensation to keep your agency competitive as an employer.
  • Build in safeguards that will enhance transparency and ensure the fairness of pay decisions.
  • Provide leadership, management and interpersonal skills training to make sure your managers communicate effectively with employees on the expectations they have for their performance.
  • Build consensus for changes in the pay system among your agency staff so that they are accepted and high performance becomes part of the culture.
  • Monitor and refine the implementation of your agency's pay system to reflect changes within government and industry.

Information technology also is helping agencies change decades-old personnel management methods, says McClure, who before moving to the private sector in 2002 spent nearly two decades monitoring agencies' systems programs for GAO.

Then and Now

Over the past five years, agencies have begun to automate the entire human resources process, with particular emphasis on employee performance. Before that, the systems used in HR and personnel were often standalone and mainly focused on administrative workforce tasks, such as tracking hours and leave or managing personal information changes in employee records.

Today, the applications are more integrated and gather more information about employees' performance on the job. "The technology is not that high-end, but just the simple software and applications used to collect data, analyze it and aggregate it is improving the ways agencies can manage employee performance," McClure says.

How Federal Workers Perceive Pay and Performance
27% Steps are taken to deal with poor performers.
29% Differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way.
30% Satisfied with the recognition received for doing a good job.
32% Personnel decisions are based on merit.
34% Promotions are based on merit.
36% Creativity and innovation are rewarded.
57% Discussions with supervisors about performance are worthwhile.
66% Performance appraisals fairly reflect performance.

Source: OPM

Web performance management systems used in several personnel demonstration projects sponsored by OPM have proven particularly effective, he says. These systems are making the process more transparent, objective and consistent.

"A hallmark of these new systems is that they provide not only an individual's score but the aggregate information as well," so the individual can see how he or she ranks compared to the staff as a whole, says McClure.

These online applications also let agencies manage performance more proactively. Regardless of location, managers and employees can work together online to set and track performance goals, schedule frequent reviews if necessary and even design employees' professional development tracks.

"Linking all these things up really allows a human capital plan to be implemented," McClure says. Managers can more easily identify and reward excellent performers while also identifying poor performers and holding them accountable for improvement, he says.

Agencies face some barriers in increasing employee performance, says Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an independent government reform think tank in Washington. The first is figuring out the performance architecture: defining the standards for performance, and figuring out what to measure and how to measure it. The second is changing a decades-old culture in which compensation has been based more on seniority than performance, DeMaio says.

"It used to be that 95 percent of senior executives in government got an 'exceeded expectations' rating when they were reviewed," he notes.

As part of the PMA effort, OPM is trying to change that through a new performance-based compensation program for Senior Executive Service employees. Under the SES program, agencies whose performance management and evaluation systems are certified by OPM can reward their best managers with higher pay. Most agencies are still awaiting final certification, but administration officials hope that once agencies begin adopting the plan for SES staff, the pay-for-performance culture will cascade down to all employees. SES covers only employees who have graduated from the GS ranks—less than 1 percent of the federal workforce.

Norm Enger, OPM's director of the Human Resources Line of Business e-government initiative, says that technology can also help workers improve their skills. OPM's Web site for training,, was launched in 2002 and now offers thousands of courses, Enger says [FedTech, May, Page 50].

OPM also is developing online competency training. Working with the CIO Council, the agency designed the IT Workforce Development Roadmap, an online career development tool that outlines general and technical skills that IT workers need to advance in their federal careers. OPM is crafting similar roadmaps for human resources, acquisition and finance, Enger says. "Agencies should be using these new solutions to improve employee performance."

More Than Money

But improving performance doesn't always have to do with pay or promotion. "Not everything has to be about the money," McClure concludes.

Consistent feedback and recognizing contributions, if only in small ways, can motivate workers to keep up good work, he says. For example, some agencies have started giving extra time off as a reward to their best workers, and that's easier than trying to find the money to give them bonuses.

Giving public recognition to particularly high-performing employees can go a long way, McClure notes. "We don't hear enough about the average federal worker who's doing a great job."