OPM Can Help Agencies with Performance Evaluation, But OPM is Not the Problem

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).

GAO noted that OPM is not adequately updating its performance management section of its website. They said “OPM does not have a process for regularly updating its performance management website with new guidance and resources to ensure that the information is readily available. Agency employees, such as human capital specialists, who visit OPM’s performance management website may be unable to find or access the most recent guidance and training available.” GAO went on to say “Although OPM identified innovation as one of its five values, we were unable to find any recent information on innovation 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on the website and found the “Promoting Innovation in Government” web page, which included archived material and was no longer being updated (see figure 15).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.




Some Young Veterans Need More From Government

With all of the ceremonies and commemorations of Veterans Day, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that veterans are not a homogenous group of men and women who all have the same needs. Some veterans complete their service with a Master’s Degree (or two or three), many have highly marketable skills, others have contacts that make them valuable in defense-related industries, and others leave service with the resources and skills needed to create their own businesses.

Some veterans return with severe disabilities, including some that are life-altering. For the most part, the federal government has done a good job in helping disabled veterans find employment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 1 in 3 veterans with a service-connected disability work in the public sector. The unemployment rate for veterans with a service-connected disability is actually slightly lower than that of other veterans.

One part of the veteran community does not do so well – younger veterans. The unemployment rate for veterans aged 18-24 is almost 8 percent. For male veterans in the same group the number is more than 8 percent. While those numbers are shockingly high, they are not very different from the numbers for non-veterans in the same age group. The truth is that young people, particularly those who are not college-educated, have high unemployment rates.

That is a problem. It means a large chunk of the labor force continually struggles to find work at a time when the rest of the economy is supposed to be humming along nicely. It also means those young people are not getting started on building a career. At a time in their lives when they should be building the foundation for the rest of their adult lives, too many are unemployed or under-employed.

I believe that problem is particularly bad when it comes to veterans. These young men and women join the military at a young age, typically soon after high school, serve the country, then are discharged. There are programs to help with transition back to civilian life, but there is still a large number who cannot find a good job.

Some people I have talked with about this say these folks have veteran preference, so that is enough. As I have said before, I do not think veteran preference as it is constructed today is helping. In fact, it is what complicates the hiring process. For young veterans without a college degree, we could do far more than what we are doing now.

Part of the problem is that so many federal jobs are typically filled with college graduates. It is not that those jobs require a degree, or that the education that qualifies people gives them special skills that are required for the job. For example, many administrative jobs are filled with college graduates with majors like Political Science, History, Psychology, or English, or similar fields of study. One can make a reasonable argument that the education process teaches critical thinking and other skills that transfer to the jobs, but the truth is that having a better understanding of the causes of World War I, or Freudian theories on personality, or any other liberal arts education does not provide the technical skills needed to do those administrative jobs. What we do is hire bright people and train them.

If we rethink how we fill some of those jobs, we could provide far more opportunities for young veterans without college degrees. Here’s how. The typical entry level for a Human Resources Specialist, or a Management Analyst, or many other administrative jobs, is GS-5 or GS-7. Sometimes the jobs are filled with students at lower grades. If we built formal training programs targeted to young veterans and created sub-entry level jobs, we could bring them into GS-3 or GS-4 positions, with the same promotion potential to GS-11 or GS-12 that traditional hires have.

Such a program should be specifically targeted to the veterans who need the help. That means a veteran with a Bachelor’s Degree would not be qualified. There is precedent for excluding fully qualified people from programs. For example, some upward mobility programs specifically exclude people who are qualified to be hired through traditional hiring programs.

If we took the time to think about veteran hiring in a more holistic way, we could offer some veterans who have traditionally struggled to find good jobs an opportunity to build a career in a stable job with good pay and benefits.

Some people will say hiring folks without degrees for these jobs would be a mistake. I disagree. Much like getting a college education provides transferable skills that are not directly related to the technical work of the jobs, military experience does as well. We want to hire people who are responsible. We want people who can think, and we want people who can be trusted with sensitive and important work. We also want to hire people who have demonstrated they can learn new skills. A 21 year-old former Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine or other veteran can certainly check those boxes. I think taking steps to find better ways to hire these young veterans is a risk worth taking, and one that is likely to produce some outstanding new hires.