The Office of Personnel Management is pushing federal agencies to strive for demanding metrics when evaluating employee performance.

The agency released a memo to the heads of agencies July 12 that offers guidance on the development and management of employee performance management and rewards programs.

“In order to recognize high performers, agencies should allocate awards in a manner that provides meaningfully greater rewards to top performers. Agencies should ensure only employees who have demonstrated the highest levels of individual performance receive the highest annual ratings of record and the highest performance awards,” wrote acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert in the memo.

“This is implemented most effectively when performance plans contain rigorous performance standards upon which employee performance will be assessed.”

The memo encouraged agency leadership to include employees in the development of evaluation standards, as performance appraisals must be based on set standards rather than grading employees on a curve.

“Performance appraisal systems must provide for establishing performance standards that will, to the maximum extend feasible, permit the accurate evaluation of job performance on the basis of objective criteria,” Weichert wrote.

“Performance standards may be more or less objective depending on the job but must be sufficiently specific to provide a firm benchmark toward which employees must aim their performance.”

In particular, the memo outlined the difference between an employee that is fully successful, meaning that their actions meet normal expectations of furthering agency success, and employees that achieve a higher rating — such as “exceeds fully successful” or “outstanding” — that denotes employees who have gone above and beyond their expected work.

The memo is part of the larger Trump administration focus on civil service reform that prioritizes rewarding top performers among federal employees while giving managers more options to deal with feds that have below average performance.

Administration officials have cited results from the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey that show the workforce does not see adequate performance recognition.

But past White House efforts to promote performance-based recognition — namely freezing federal pay in exchange for a more merit-based pay system — have not gone over well in the federal workforce.

When it comes to spending money on top-performing federal employees, another July 12 memo out of OPM is requiring agencies to update their awards spending plans to adjust “the balance between rating-based awards and individual contribution awards (e.g., special act awards).”

Rating-based awards are lump sums of money given to federal employees based on their most recent appraisal rating, whereas special act awards are given for a particular project or action an employee undertakes that has a significant positive impact on the agency and its mission.

Agencies will have to submit Agency Workforce Fund Plans with the amount they plan to spend on awards, how they plan to balance the types of awards and how their award plan will promote the agency’s mission to the Office of Management and Budget with their fiscal year 2021 budget submissions.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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