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New performance system could lead to General Schedule overhaul

Jan. 3, 2012 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments
Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce, eventually wants to put federal employees under a pay-for-performance system.
Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce, eventually wants to put federal employees under a pay-for-performance system. (Rep. Dennis Ross)

Early steps toward overhauling the six-decade-old General Schedule pay system for federal employees are being taken now at six agencies.

The agencies the Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Labor departments, the Coast Guard and the Office of Personnel Management are pilot testing a new way to manage employee performance that could serve as a template for other agencies.

The performance management system is called GEAR, which stands for goals, engagement, accountability and results. The agencies will report on how those pilot projects are doing at a Jan. 18 meeting of top union and administration officials called the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations.

Improving performance management through the GEAR model is a first step toward the longer-term goal of overhauling the General Schedule (GS) system, an OPM official said in November.

"Effective and fair performance management systems need to be in place before we redesign federal pay systems to mirror nonfederal state-of-the-art pay systems," Justin Johnson, OPM's deputy chief of staff, said.

Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the federal workforce, also has spoken about the need to reform the GS system. He eventually wants to put federal employees under a pay-for-performance system. But Fred Piccolo, Ross' chief of staff, said the congressman is not ready to say how or when that might happen.

"Pay for performance is an issue Chairman Ross believes in deeply," Piccolo said in an email last month. "However, with the long history of failed attempts [at] creating a program that works, it is something he wants to take time and study in developing."

That means GEAR will likely be the widest-ranging civil service reform enacted this year. The program does not make any structural changes to federal personnel systems, but calls on agencies to create a culture of ongoing, continuous feedback between managers and employees. GEAR recommends that federal managers hold quarterly performance reviews with employees, called progress score cards, to improve communication and alert employees to any ongoing performance problems.

The program also recommends agencies improve how they select supervisors, and require mandatory training for new supervisors on how to manage employees' performance.

A working group of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations concluded federal supervisors fail to provide staffs with regular, documented feedback on their performance. As a result, employees often learn about problems with their performance at evaluation time, when it is too late.

The working group said that if an employee is told about a problem during his first quarterly review and hasn't made progress by the second review, the manager should immediately place the employee on a performance improvement plan. If a manager still doesn't see progress by the third quarterly review, he should begin the process to reassign or fire the underperforming employee.

New hiring program

Also this year, the government will launch new programs to help college students and recent graduates find government jobs.

OPM Director John Berry said in November that he hopes the three-tiered Pathways Programs will be fully launched by the end of this academic year, to give the class of 2012 better opportunities for federal jobs. Pathways consists of the Internship Program for current students, the Recent Graduates Program for people who have received a degree in the last two years or veterans who got a degree in the last six years, and the existing Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program.

Pathways will replace the now-defunct Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) which the Merit Systems Protection Board in 2010 ruled illegal and the Student Career Experience Program. Like under FCIP, Pathways hires can be placed in permanent jobs without competing for them, which led the National Treasury Employees Union last year to oppose the program.

Under Pathways' Recent Graduates and PMF programs, new hires will have two-year, on-the-job "tryouts" after which they can be converted without competition to permanent jobs. OPM said this should give the new workers time to develop and grow into their jobs, and allow managers to fully evaluate how well they perform.

This is identical to FCIP's two-year probationary period, which is one year longer than the standard probationary period for new employees. NTEU also objected to the Pathways Programs' two-year trial period. During probation, managers can more easily fire underperforming employees.

Pathways' regulations stress that participating in the program does not guarantee a permanent federal job, and managers will need to actively convert a temporary Pathways employee to a permanent position. If a manager does not convert the employee after two years, that Pathways hire will lose his job.

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