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At GSA, almost everyone rates a bonus

Jun. 4, 2012 - 08:34AM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments

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Last year, 87 percent of General Services Administration employees got bonuses averaging nearly $1,200 per recipient, according to Federal Times’ analysis of government data.

That made GSA the most generous of all agencies when it comes to issuing bonuses to their employees.

Other agencies with generous bonus programs:

• The Environmental Protection Agency, which gave bonuses to 75 percent of its employees.

• The Energy Department, which gave bonuses to 69 percent of its employees.

• The Commerce Department, which gave bonuses to 58 percent of its employees.

These figures are all well above the governmentwide average of 32 percent.

At GSA’s troubled Public Buildings Service — which is at the center of an ongoing controversy over excessive conference spending — the money flew even more freely: About 94 percent of employees got bonuses last year.

Federal Times analyzed federal bonus data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the Asbury Park Press. Both newspapers are owned by Gannett, a media conglomerate based in McLean, Va.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said the high percentage of bonuses is another sign of deeper problems at GSA.

“There is an outrageous cycle of waste, fraud and abuse at GSA that is too likely to continue,” Denham said. “This is the federal agency that sets the standard for every other agency in government. We need to not only figure out how deep this culture of waste and fraud goes, but we need to put a stop to it altogether. We need major reform in the way our government does business to restore accountability to our taxpayers. I will continue to demand answers and take appropriate action so this never happens again.”

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said he was surprised to hear that so many GSA employees received bonuses in 2011.

“That’s a very high percentage of employees,” Palguta said. “It may well be an attempt to cushion the blow of the pay freeze.”

GSA spokesman Adam Elkington declined an interview request, but did offer a short email statement: “GSA is conducting a top-to-bottom review of our agency’s operations, which includes a review of performance awards and bonuses in recent years.”

The size of bonuses varies greatly at GSA, from a scant $58 to $6,220.

Presidential Rank Award recipients likely accounted for the largest five-figure awards at GSA. Rank Awards are given to a small fraction of Senior Executive Service members across government; most are lump sum payments equivalent to 20 percent of salary while a smaller number are equivalent to 35 percent of salary.

But other GSA employees received bonuses of $4,000, $5,000 and in one case nearly $8,000.

The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which runs the Thrift Savings Plan, is another generous agency. Slightly more than one-third of its 99 employees received bonuses, which averaged nearly $9,900.

FRTIB spokeswoman Kim Weaver said that is a sign that the board’s staff is very small and highly specialized.

“We are a very small agency,” Weaver said. “If our bonus amounts are high, it is a reflection of the fact that we have highly qualified technical and professional staff overseeing this endeavor.”

For example, Penny Moran, the board’s former director of participant services, received a Presidential Rank Award last year, which came with a $53,060 bonus. Moran was recognized for her work creating an outreach strategy that convinced more than 500,000 uniformed service members to sign up for the Thrift Savings Plan, and for helping keep TSP’s operating expenses among the lowest in the industry.

Presidential Rank Awards, which are one of the highest honors a civil servant can receive, can greatly skew the average bonus at an agency, making it look like an agency is far more generous than it actually is.

The average per-recipient bonus at the Office of Management and Budget, for example, was $3,816 last year. But when two Rank Award winners’ prizes are factored out, the remaining 21 recipients’ average drops to $843.

Agencies are extremely reluctant to discuss the size and frequency of bonuses. Most agencies contacted by Federal Times for comment — including EPA and Energy — either declined or did not respond to multiple inquiries.Commerce declined to discuss Federal Times’ calculations on the size and frequency of bonuses. But Commerce spokeswoman Sarah Horowitz said its components did reduce spending on bonuses last year. Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology cut its performance-based bonus spending by $2.6 million last year, she said.

“NIST issues merit-based awards particularly to employees such as Nobel laureates and other leading scientists as a means to remain competitive with private-sector employers and ensure the government is able to retain world-class experts,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz also said that Commerce’s Patent and Trademark Office is fully funded by user fees, and that taxpayers do not pay for its bonuses and other expenses. PTO issues awards directly based on how many patent and trademark applications are processed, and Horowitz said offering awards leads to greater efficiency and savings.

Federal employees’ pay has become a hot political topic this year, with many leading Republicans — including presidential candidate Mitt Romney — saying federal employees are overcompensated.

Palguta said the average bonuses received by federal employees’ aren’t that excessive.

“Once a week, they can buy someone a pizza” with the bonus, Palguta said. “But the bottom line is, is it a wise expenditure of federal funds? If the money has no motivational value, if it’s not aiding in retention or encouraging higher productivity, then we shouldn’t be doing it.”

But finding the point where bonuses become excessive can sometimes be hard for managers, he said.

“There’s no line in the sand that says, if this many employees get a performance award, there’s something wrong,” Palguta said.

The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press contributed to this report.

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