OPM Can Help Agencies With Performance Evaluation, But OPM Is Not The Problem

A recent GAO report highlighted shortcomings in OPM’s performance management practices, but the author says the report doesn’t go far enough.

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Opportunities Exist for OPM to Further Innovation in Performance Management, highlighted the performance management practices of four agencies and indicated OPM could do more to share best practices among agencies. The report focuses on Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) responses on questions that relate to employee confidence in the performance evaluation process.

GAO concluded that employees generally believe agencies are doing reasonably well with respect to four of OPM’s Five Phases of Performance Management, and need to improve on the fifth (rewarding).

for performance management in the government on OPM’s website. Specifically, we used “innovation performance management” as a search term on the website and found the “Promoting Innovation in Government” web page, which included archived material and was no longer being updated (see figure 15). As a result, agencies that use OPM’s website as a source of performance management guidance would be unable to find any current resources on performance management innovation. OPM officials explained that older material is archived based on the current leadership’s vision. The officials also confirmed that OPM did not have other active websites that contained innovative performance management practices gathered from external sources, which could be shared with other federal agencies. Implementing a strategic approach to sharing innovation in performance management would then allow OPM to provide relevant and updated information that agencies could use to modernize their performance management systems.

While I believe GAO’s conclusion is sound, it does not go far enough and it may be shifting responsibility for the government’s shortcomings in performance management to OPM rather than focusing on more troubling findings.

The report uses FEVS data to identify employee perceptions of how performance management is handled. It also uses the same data to determine how leaders perceive the job they are doing with respect to performance management.

The views of employees and leaders differ in a big way. Only 39 percent of employees responded positively on questions related to how their agencies reward good performance. Only one-third agreed that “Promotions in my work unit are based on merit.” The percentage of senior leaders who agreed with that statement was 40 points higher. And that is the problem.

Asking OPM to put out better information on performance management is a good idea. Highlighting innovative practices, including those from the private sector, is a good idea. But what happens if the agency leaders think they are doing a great job already? An agency is unlikely to change how it handles performance management, including promotions, if the agency’s senior leaders think everything is going well. That disconnect between employee and management perceptions is a divide that must be bridged.

I have had discussions with senior executives and managers about this very issue when I was a senior executive in government myself. Sitting in our private offices, surrounded by staff, and with access to large amounts of information, senior leaders are often isolated from the people they lead. More often than not, what I would hear about subjects such as selection processes is “we know we are running a fair process and every selection produces unhappy applicants.”

Whether the process is fair or not is not good enough. If the majority of employees do not have confidence in the decisions their leaders make regarding performance, recognition and promotion, morale and engagement will suffer. Good performers who believe they cannot get fair treatment will go elsewhere, and agency performance will suffer.

We can get OPM to improve how it shares information, but the biggest improvements will come when we convince people in leadership roles that they have to work on the trust issue. And they have to recognize that their perception of the agency where they work is influenced by their privileged status in the agency. If that does not change, it does not matter how much better OPM shares information.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit ChiefHRO.com to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.