Senior execs pan performance pay system

By Karen Rutzick

The fledgling system to pay federal executives based on quantifiable performance measures is a flop, according to most of the executives who responded to an unscientific survey released Monday.

Eighty-six percent of respondents said the 2-year-old pay-for-performance system in the Senior Executive Service had no impact on their job performance. Another 5 percent said the system actually had a negative effect on their performance. Less than 10 percent said the system made a positive difference.

The survey was created by the Senior Executives Association in partnership with Avue Technologies, and 846 members of the SES voluntarily completed it. Because it was not based on a random sample -- and so, for example, disgruntled employees may have been more inclined to fill it out -- the findings are not scientific.

"There is significant pressure on reviewers to distinguish between executives in ratings in a somewhat artificial manner so as to show a range of results," an executive at the National Institutes of Health said in a response to the survey. "The system does not improve performance in any important way and has negative impacts that far exceed any usefulness."

More than 50 percent of respondents said their agencies used quotas - which are banned in the system - to forcibly limit the number of outstanding ratings awarded last year. Another 30 percent said they were not sure if their agency used quotas and 18 percent said there were no quotas.

"This year, my supervisors directed me to lower the rating of an SES subordinate for whom I had proposed an outstanding rating, and to lower the rating on any element I chose for him because it just wasn't his 'turn' to get an outstanding," one executive from the Agriculture Department said in completing the survey. "Needless to say, I am very cynical about it all."

The ranks of the 6,000 or so SES employees across government were abolished in favor of a broad pay band in January 2004 that gives managers more flexibility to compensate high-achieving employees, and a higher overall pay cap. Executives were placed under the system first, with the intent that it would serve as a base for further legislation to extend pay-for-performance to the rank-and-file later.

SEA president Carol Bonosaro said her organization supported the pay-for-performance system at first, but "the survey results demonstrate that something has been lost in translation as the system has been implemented."

Bonosaro and her SEA team met Monday with Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer and several Capitol Hill staff members to discuss the results. Next week, Bonosaro will testify on the results before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee overseeing the federal workforce.

For her part, Springer said she is examining the results but stands by the system.

"OPM strongly believes that the Senior Executive Service pay-for-performance system is in the best interest of both the federal workforce and American citizens," Springer said in a statement. "To the extent that some managers may not be executing the new system properly, OPM and federal agencies must work to improve their performance."

SEA has long advocated for better pay raises for executives, who it says are starting to earn less than employees on the highest rungs of the government's General Schedule. The association is now promoting legislation, based in part on these survey results, to require minimum raises for executives who rate fully successful or higher, a stronger prohibition on the use of quotas, and distinct funding pools for SES raises.