Office of Personnel Management leadership under the Trump administration has frequently turned to results from the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey that indicate feds’ dissatisfaction with reward and punishment practices to support dramatic efforts to both overhaul employee management and change the federal pay and benefits system.

Most recently, the administration proposed changing federal practices to make it easier to discipline and fire under-performing federal employees.

“Notably, as demonstrated in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, a majority of both employees and managers agree that the performance management system fails to reward the best and address unacceptable performance,” the proposed rule change said.

But the National Treasury Employees Union disputes that interpretation of the survey results.

“OPM does not cite responses to specific FEVS questions that support this statement,” NTEU National President Tony Reardon wrote in an Oct. 16 response to the proposed rule. “In fact, reported responses to two FEVS questions about topics most closely related to the statement do not support it.”

In the 2018 FEVS results, 39.4 percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the sentiment that steps were taken to deal with the poor performers in their work unit, and 29.2 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that awards in their work unit were based on employee performance.

Reardon notes that this therefore does not constitute a majority of employees thinking that the rewards and punishment system for federal employees is out of balance.

In addition, 83.1 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were held accountable for achieving high results and 83.8 percent felt that the quality of their overall work unit’s performance was good.

“These percentages cannot easily be reconciled with the view of 39.4 percent that poor performers (presumably others, not the respondents themselves) are not held accountable. In general, respondents see themselves and others in their work units as being held accountable and performing well, while perceiving that others are not,” Reardon said.

“As OPM cautioned when publishing the FEVS data in the page titled ‘Understanding Results,’ survey results don’t explain why employees respond to questions as they do and that is why survey data should be used with other data to assess the state of human capital management. By simplistically citing FEVS data to justify relaxing employees’ civil service protections, OPM fails to follow its own advice.”

The Oct. 16 response also argued that OPM falsely assumes that more federal employees need to be fired, when claiming that it is too hard to fire them, and the agency does not put enough focus on how successful agency efforts are at improving skill and performance.

OPM leadership’s argument — that federal employees themselves wish for a system where poor performers are more effectively dealt with and the excelling employees are recognized — may rely on whether results from the 2019 version of the survey maintain or increase the dissatisfaction with current management practices.

“Like the executive orders that inspired them, these OPM rule changes clearly have but one goal: to gut due process and get rid of federal employees as fast as possible,” Reardon said in a news release. “And who benefits from a smaller, weaker government? Financial scam artists who don’t get caught by the SEC; polluters who don’t get caught by the EPA; tax cheats who don’t get caught by the IRS; and on and on.”

Reardon has also argued before Congress that assertions that it is too hard to address poor-performing employees stem from a lack of manager training, rather than lack of options, as the government often promotes people into management positions without investing in the needed training on how to manage under the federal system.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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