"We have a credibility problem with the public," OPM Director John Berry said. "They believe that we have a tenure system, and nonperformers aren't held accountable for their performance and good performers aren't rewarded." (Rob Curtis / Staff)
The Office of Personnel Management wants to find out why the government has such a hard time disciplining or firing poor performers.
The agency has begun studying how it punishes employees who cannot or will not improve, Director John Berry said Wednesday. The study is now focusing just on OPM, but Berry wants to broaden it to other agencies and asked for volunteers.
"We need to find out, where are the sticking points," Berry said in a keynote address to the Human Capital Management-Federal conference in Vienna, Va. "It may be that the law is powerful enough that the program actually, if well executed, will work, and it's just that we have gotten locked into myths and bad practices. [Or] maybe the law needs to be changed. I don't know yet."
Berry said focusing on performance accountability will be an opportunity for OPM to cooperate with the House's new Republican leadership.
"We have a credibility problem with the public," Berry said. "They believe that we have a tenure system, and nonperformers aren't held accountable for their performance and good performers aren't rewarded. And that is reflected in our employee surveys. It is crystal clear that we have a problem — our own employees are telling us this."
But Berry said he believes most federal employees are hard workers, and rejected the management philosophy proposed by former GE CEO Jack Welch that says an agency should fire the worst-performing 10 percent of its work force each year.
"I wouldn't want to work in a company like that, and I sure as heck wouldn't want to lead it," Berry said.
Berry said that OPM's experiment earlier this year with a Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, program — where about 400 employees had freedom to choose where and when they would work as long as they got their work done — helped the agency find out which employees weren't pulling their weight.
"The nonperformers stuck out like sore thumbs," Berry said. "In many cases, the nonperformers saw they were sticking out and got in the game. In some cases, they didn't, and our employees said, ‘Wait a minute. I'm working, breaking my back, doing a good job. Why are we carrying dead wood? Why aren't you firing that person?' "
Berry said OPM didn't think ahead before launching ROWE and adjust employees' performance plans so poor performers could be held accountable. But OPM has extended the ROWE experiment for another year, and is now using labor-management partnership councils to renegotiate performance agreements so employees can be held accountable if they do not improve.