Should Federal Pay Be Related To Performance?

Performance management is largely a subjective process. Federal managers are in the best position to make decisions on federal pay and performance. It is unfair to American taxpayers to allow a system in which performance plays a very small role in how employees are compensated.

A recent Stephen Barr article in the Washington Post discussed the results of the most recent government-wide survey on human resources management conducted by the Office of Personnel Management. The article reported that on one of the statements – “Pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs,” only 22 percent agreed with the statement, while 45 percent disagreed, and the rest were either neutral or gave another response.

Various experts on the topic then weighed in on the topic on both sides of the issue. Management experts generally stated that there should be more emphasis on pay for performance in the Federal government, while the union leader quoted in the article stated that pay performance in the government would not work because employees don’t trust their supervisors to make these types of decisions.

With 30+ years of experience in performance management in the Federal government as an OPM staffer and also a consultant, there are many things I do not know about this area. However, there are a few things that I have learned that I believe are important to note.

1.  You will not win any arguments with your friends and relatives outside the Federal government by arguing that Federal employees should not have their pay based on performance.

It is simply unfair to the taxpayer to allow a system in which performance plays a very small role in how employees are compensated. It is also very unfair to allow a system to exist in which star performers earn only minimally more than truly mediocre employees. And the current Federal system in existence in most Title V agencies allows for that to happen. Taxpayers have a right to having their tax dollars be used wisely, and how the government pays its employees certainly falls into that category.

2.  Having said that, I do believe that performance management is as much of a subjective process as it is an objective process.

In any organization, public or private, performance appraisal is never a totally objective process. In the Federal government, performance is even more subjective, because most Federal employees produce service rather than widgets. Sure, it would be nice if the Feds had a totally objective system, in which the exact outputs for every Federal employee were completely and accurately measured and displayed for all to see in terms of quantity, quality, and timeliness. But, because the Federal government tends to produce service rather than widgets, this perfect type of system is simply never going to happen, and we should be willing to admit it and move on.

3.  When you combine the first two points – the taxpayer deserves it and it is a difficult and often subjective process – the manager is still in the best position to make the final decision on the rating and the amount of pay.

Virtually every organization of any size, whether public or private, has a performance management system, and virtually all of them require the employee’s supervisor to render the final decision on the employee’s performance. Supervisors in the Federal government are no more biased, uninformed, or uncaring than supervisors in any other walk of life; In fact, I would argue that the opposite is probably the case, based on my experience with teaching Federal managers in a variety of classroom situations over the past 30+ years. I also certainly encourage the use of such tools as employee input in the performance appraisal decision, and the use of 360 feedback systems to obtain information from internal and external customers. The more information the manager has, the more opportunity she has to make an informed, fair, and correct decision on the employee’s performance rating. But in virtually every organization that I am aware of, it is still the immediate supervisor who makes that decision, and that is probably not going to change anytime soon.

4.   With so much depending on the Federal managers, agencies have an obligation to select and train their managers to become professional, full-time, fully-functioning managers.

Gone are (or should be) the days when agencies allow their managers to merely “dabble” in supervision while continuing to spend most of their time working on the technical aspects of their work. For one thing, you can’t have people making pay decisions who only want to “dabble” in supervision. Also, gone are (or should be) the days when agencies select people for supervisory positions only based on their technical rather than on their people skills. Agencies simply can’t afford to do that, in part because of what I stated in the first three points.

When it comes to performance management, Federal managers need to be highly trained in how to assess performance and give accurate ratings. They should be trained, not only in the mechanics of the system, but also in how to apply the system accurately and fairly – the behavioral aspects of any performance management system, including feedback, counseling, assessing, and communicating performance. After all, Federal employees and the taxpayer deserve accurate and fair ratings, and agencies owe it to their managers to make sure they are thoroughly trained in all aspects of performance management.

This statement is particularly important as agencies move to implement a system in which overall pay is more related to performance than the current system provides for.

The Federal government requires a cadre of properly selected and well-trained managers to manage the Federal workforce, and the job is certainly not getting any easier. Federal managers now manage more employees than ever before, they are now managing a cadre of contractors in many cases, and the job is becoming ever more complex.

While I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about performance management, I believe that the four points I have listed above are fair and accurate.

Gary Koca worked in human resources management as a Federal employee or contractor for 42 years until retiring in 2012.