Pay-For-Performance Faces Tough Road in Federal Environment

By on November 18, 2004 in Current Events with 0 Comments

A thoughtful and comprehensive new report on pay for performance in the federal government concludes that one of the biggest obstacles to implementing a new pay system is “to overcome cynicism and distrust among federal employees” about a pay for performance system.

Federal employees who are cynical and distrusting? Who would have thought it?

Based on a survey of readers taken several days ago, “cynicism and distrust” is a mild description. “Hostile” may be a more accurate way of describing how federal employees feel about a pay for performance system. In some cases, it may even be accurate to say that it ranges between “hostile” and “apoplectic.”

Here’s what readers are saying. 61% indicate they do not support a pay-for-performance system in their agency. On the other hand, 50% think pay-or-performance will become a reality in the government in the next four years.

So, in effect, most don’t support the idea but they think it is going to happen anyway.

The problems cited by federal workers in the pay-for-performance area are many. Most readers who responded to our survey (66%), think that all of these are barriers to a successful pay-for-performance system: Congressional funding; ineffective managers; lack of a profit motive in the government; lengthy appeals processes; ineffective appraisal system; and inconsistent application of performance standards.

Here are some of the reactions from readers:

A program manager for USDA in Washington, DC writes: ”

“It will be back to the old cronyism that was the reason for going to the new system. I’ve only had 1 out of 6 supervisors in my career that I felt was (sic) capable of doing a fair and unbiased evaluation of their entire staff. You will see a lot of early retirements if this goes through.”

An employee of the Social Security Administration in Richmond, CA says: “I am strongly against the mostly, partisan motivated proposal. The current performance standards are sufficient and the new system would only aid in LOWERING the quality of work that we do by emphasizing QUANTITY of production over QUALITY of service”

A training officer from the Air Force in San Antonio had this thought: “I feel supervisors will fear grievances will be filed against them if they give a bigger bonus to one employee and a smaller, or none at all, to other employees. In the long run, I feel supervisors will give all employees the same bonus amount, thus making the program ineffective.”

An employee from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard chimed in with this: “Due to rampant, obvious nepotism in our facility, most employees fear that pay for performance will only increase an already existing problem as friends promote friends and down grade people for other than work performance reasons.”

An HR specialist from the Department of Energy in Denver says: “In my experience, mgrs are not good at writing meaningful/measurable standards, appraising performance, and explaining expectation. If large pay raises are connected to the pay system, then the system will deteriorate and likely fail. Managers will be pressured to spread the wealth rather than explaining to an employee why they do not get a raise and/or why it is smaller than other employees.”

These were the most typical comments we received.

Not all readers were completely negative. A sign maker for the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming thinks there are advantages to a pay-for performance system:

“Unfair as it may sound, I believe there is an attitude among government workers with any longevity; it seems they believe that they are “due” steps in achievement almost automatically. Given this attitude, performance and efficiency is less than private sector, while benefits are greater than private sector. I think government workers have an elitest attitude that becomes reinforced once hired. ”

And a technician from the Forest Service in Alaska thinks pay-for-performance is necessary in government: “Ihave watched federal workers sit doing nothing, because they had finished what they were assigned and didn’t have anything else to do. At one time I was working up pay estimates for a job and was asked why I was doing that. The guy who asked this said he wouldn’t do it because it wasn’t in his job description. It would have made everyone’s job a little easier if he had taken some initiative and found things he could do, or learn to do, rather than sit at his desk looking at the floor. He certainly would not have been employed for long in private industry with that attitude. This is what pay for performance is about, and I’m for it.”

Thanks to all of our readers who took the time to send in their opinions and comments on this topic.

© 2016 Ralph R. Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ralph R. Smith.


About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters onĀ federal human resources.