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Managers: What tech do you use to evaluate performance?

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Federal Times would like to hear from federal managers on what they use to evaluate employees’ performance. Specifically, what kind of software tools or programs come in handy when you’re tracking someone’s progress and deciding how he stacks up to the goals you set at the beginning of the year? (You are setting those goals, right?)

E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to speak off-the-record or on background, that’s fine.

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Tenn. rep.: Snoozing FAA controllers could goose disciplinary reform

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The FAA’s recent scandals involving multiple air traffic controllers sleeping on the job could “give some momentum” to the effort to overhaul federal civil service rules and make it easier to punish poor performers, according to Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn.

The Knoxville News Sentinel yesterday quoted Duncan as saying that the repeated gaffes underscore that federal personnel policies make it tough for managers to fire poor performers, and must be changed. “There are too many protections for most federal workers,” Duncan reportedly said. “It’s too hard to get rid of lazy, incompetent people.”

Rep. Dennis Ross., R-Fla., is chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce and has made it a priority to strengthen managers’ ability to discipline poor performers.

Duncan represents Knoxville, Tenn., where air traffic controller Jonathan Poindexter allegedly fell asleep while on the job at McGhee Tyson Airport Feb. 19. The FAA is moving to fire him.

The News Sentinel also quotes AFGE National President John Gage as saying it’s a myth that federal employees can’t be disciplined or fired. 11,668 federal employees were fired in fiscal 2010 — mostly for misconduct, but some for poor performance.

But at a time when federal employees’ salaries, benefits and in some cases, their jobs are under attack, it doesn’t bode well that slacking air traffic controllers are currently the public face of feds. Conan O’Brien even joked this week about the controller caught watching a DVD on duty: “When asked why he was watching a movie, the air traffic controller said, ‘I just couldn’t sleep.’”

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Fed Times on the air: 737 of 1.2M feds denied raises for poor performance

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Just 737 out of more than 1.2 million General Schedule employees were denied their step increases and accompanying raises for poor performance in 2009, as Federal Times’ exclusive investigation found. Senior writer Stephen Losey talked on Monday with Capital Insider’s Morris Jones about what this shows about the government’s performance management problems:


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Fed Times on the air: Step increases for (almost) all!

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I’ll be appearing on the TV show Capital Insider this evening to discuss the government’s inability to hold poor performers accountable. As we reported last week, only 737 out of more than 1.2 million General Schedule employees had their step increases and accompanying pay raises withheld for reasons of poor performance.

Critics of the GS system say this is a clear sign that the government has a hard time disciplining people who can’t or won’t improve, and think the system needs a radical overhaul.

And I’m still interested in hearing from managers about this issue. If you’d like to share your thoughts on what is wrong with the government’s performance accountability culture, e-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com.

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Disciplining poor performers: What’s holding you back?

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The numbers are in, and it seems pretty clear that the government has a problem disciplining its poor performers. As Federal Times exclusively reported Tuesday, only 737 General Schedule employees — less than 0.06 percent of the GS workforce — did so poorly in fiscal 2009 that their step increases were withheld.

Those numbers confirm what’s long been known through anecdotal evidence and employee surveys: Slackers aren’t held accountable in the federal offices. The reasons why are debatable. Unions say the problem is with poor managerial training. Others say the system is biased against managers, who are tied up in bureaucratic knots and afraid of getting caught up in appeals for months.

Federal Times would like to hear your thoughts on the subject. Are you a manager who has tried to withhold a step increase from a poor performer, but been stymied by the system? Were you intimidated against trying, or did you feel like it just wasn’t worth the effort? Or do you think you need more training on performance accountability? How do you handle poor performers in your workplace, and what changes are needed that would make it easier for you to hold them accountable?

Or if you’re an employee, are your bosses unwilling or unable to crack down on your colleagues who aren’t cutting it? What do you think is the problem?

E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com to share your thoughts. If you’d like to talk anonymously, that’s fine.

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AFGE takes its ball, goes home

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UPDATE BELOW: Citing alleged “union busting” activities at a Nebraska Air Force base, the American Federation of Government Employees said Tuesday it is pulling out of Defense Department talks to design a new performance appraisal system.

AFGE objects to Offutt Air Force Base’s refusal to allow registered nurse Julie Sheehan to attend the design team meetings in Washington. AFGE said the base’s refusal is retaliation for her successful organizing and collective bargaining efforts. Sheehan is vice president of AFGE Local 1486 at Offutt.

AFGE said Sheehan attended an initial labor-management meeting in Los Angeles last September, and attended the first round of meetings in Washington last month. But AFGE said Offutt is refusing to let Sheehan attend further meetings. AFGE said the base’s supervisors have accused Sheehan of poor performance and placed her on a performance improvement plan — which they called “trumped-up charges” — though they said she has consistently received top performance ratings.

“They are targeting this employee to discourage union membership,” said Don Hale, president of AFGE’s Defense Conference. “This is nothing less than union busting, and we won’t stand for it. We are pulling out of the design team, and the Air Force Command and DoD’s senior leaders can explain it to Congress.”

Hale said AFGE will return to the personnel system discussions — which also aim to design new hiring flexibilities and work-force incentives such as bonuses — if Offutt allows Sheehan to participate and drops its claims of poor performance.

Offutt spokespeople were unavailable for comment.

UPDATE: The Pentagon issued this statement Wednesday morning regarding AFGE’s pullout:

The Department of Defense recognizes and respects the right of the union leadership to select the bargaining unit representatives they believe are best suited to serve on the design teams for the National Defense Authorization Act 2010 personnel initiatives. Unfortunately, a significant workload requirement precluded management from releasing one of the selected individuals. We have provided the union leadership the opportunity to select an alternate for this very important initiative. This option is strongly encouraged in view of the workload considerations of the previously selected individual.

The NDAA 2010 personnel initiatives present the Department with both a tremendous challenge and opportunity. In crafting the new authorities, our goal has always been to assure broad based participation. AFGE is one of several unions participating in the design and development process. As we proceed, we will continue efforts to assure the union perspective is fully considered.

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The Welch way? Or the Berry way?

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John Berry

OPM Director John Berry gave an interesting speech this afternoon to the Human Capital Management Federal conference in Vienna, Va., part of which focused on performance accountability. Berry said he’s starting to look at what “sticking points” are keeping the government from disciplining and firing poor performers. But while Berry made it clear slackers must be held to account, he also said he doesn’t want the government to go overboard:

I am not an advocate of the GE model where you’ve got to fire 10 percent of the workforce a year. I wouldn’t want to work in a company like that, and I sure as heck wouldn’t want to lead it.

Berry was referring to former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who explained his philosophy on his website, The Welch Way, under the headline “Cruel and Darwinian? Try fair and effective.”

Look, companies win when their managers make a clear and meaningful distinction between top and bottom performing businesses and people, when they cultivate the strong and cull out the weak. Companies suffer when every business and person is treated equally and bets are sprinkled all around like rain on the ocean. [...]

Now let’s talk about the more controversial topic, differentiation among people. It’s a process that requires managers to assess their employees and separate them into three categories in terms of performance: top 20 percent, middle 70, and bottom 10. Then – and this is key – it requires managers to act on that distinction. I emphasize the word “act” because all managers naturally differentiate – in their heads. But very few make it real.

When people differentiation is real, the top 20 percent of employees are showered with bonuses, stock options, praise, love, training, and a variety of rewards to their pocketbooks and souls. There can be no mistaking the “stars” at a company that differentiates. They are the best and are treated that way.

The middle 70 percent are managed differently. This group of people is enormously valuable to any company; you simply cannot function without their skills, energy, and commitment. After all, they are the majority of your employees. And that’s the major challenge, and risk, in 20-70-10 – keeping the “middle 70” engaged and motivated. [...]

As for the bottom 10 percent in differentiation, there is no sugarcoating this – they have to go. That’s more easily said than done, of course. It’s awful to “fire” people – I even hate that word. But if you have a candid organization with clear performance expectations and a performance evaluation process – a big IF, obviously, but that should be everyone’s goal – then people in the bottom 10 percent generally know who they are. When you tell them, they usually leave before you ask them to. No one wants to be in an organization where they aren’t wanted. One of the best things about differentiation is that people in the bottom 10 percent of organizations very often go on to successful careers at companies and in pursuits where they truly belong and where they can excel.

That’s two very different philosophies on display. What do you think? Would Welch’s approach work in your office? Or would it just create a dog-eat-dog environment, where one employee sandbags another to stay out of that bottom 10 percent and save his own job? Or are the people who can’t hack it so untouchable that it’ll take such drastic measures to get results? Sound off below.

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More on OMB’s performance reviews

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Shelley Metzenbaum, OMB’s associate director for performance and personnel management, issued a memo on performance management today that didn’t seem to say much beyond previously announced plans to meet with agencies on their high-priority goals and set up a website to track agencies’ performance.

One interesting line, though, was this one: “Agencies should consider this year a transition year during which OMB and the [Performance Improvement Council] will move to a more dynamic performance planning, management, improvement, and reporting framework that is useful, streamlined and coherent.”

This seems to indicate that OMB is going to establish some kind of performance-management system or checklist that agencies use, even though Metzenbaum has said before that OMB didn’t want to do that. Or perhaps this just refers to OMB’s performance website?

I’m checking this out with OMB, but at first blush this memo doesn’t appear to be a change in direction from OMB’s vision of using outcome-based, data-driven analysis and holding agencies accountable for progress toward their high-priority goals. We’ll be watching to see how agencies live up to these expectations when they’re explaining to OMB this summer why they want to cut Program X from their fiscal 2012 budget, but not Project Y.

UPDATE 6/29/10:

Here’s the response to my questions I received from OMB press secretary Jean Weinberg. Do with this information what you will.

1. The transition year refers to the period during which agencies are producing documents to meet the requirements of GPRA, which include the FY 2012 Performance Budget/Annual Performance Plan and the FY 2010 Annual Performance Report.

2. The new “framework” is expected to cover the full performance improvement process – not just plan and report production. The framework is expected to include key steps such as leaders setting priorities, analyzing results to identify performance variations and understand the reasons for them, holding regular data-driven reviews, and ensuring accountability and transparency of results. This new approach is exemplified by the High Priority Performance Goal effort, the launching pad for the Administration’s broader performance improvement and transparency efforts.”

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Government performance data on the Web

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I reported yesterday on the Office of Management and Budget’s plan to review agencies’ progress toward their high-priority performance goals and post that information on the Web.

I spoke with Peter Grace at HUD this morning and he said the site will be called USAperformance.gov and he expects it to be live by July. Shelley Metzenbaum of OMB would only say yesterday that it would be up this summer or this fall, so perhaps July is the goal, but they’re hedging their bets on when it will actually go live.

Right now, the USAperformance.gov URL exists but is password protected.

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About those new OMB guidelines…

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A request for our readers: I know OMB’s new performance management guidelines are still pretty new, and I’m sure many agencies haven’t had a chance to discuss them yet.

But if your agency is planning to apply for the extra program evaluation funding that’s available in 2010, send me an e-mail — I want to hear from you.