FAA lacks results for personnel reforms, GAO says

A six-year-old effort by the Federal Aviation Administration to revamp its pay system, workforce planning strategies and employee relations has yet to show significant signs of success, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

Since it usually takes agencies five to seven years to demonstrate that major reform efforts have brought "meaningful and lasting" results, "FAA's implementation of personnel reform should now be approaching a point where such results might be discernable," the report (GAO-03-156) said.

But the FAA initiated changes to its human capital management strategy without taking enough time to develop the baseline data and performance measures that would now help determine if the changes are working as intended.

In interviews conducted between November 2001 and October 2002, FAA human capital officers told GAO the reforms were successful, but they lacked sufficient empirical data to back up this claim, the report said. The more than 170 managers and employees questioned over the same period were "generally less positive," GAO added.

The FAA needs to establish measures that would help assess whether reform efforts have helped achieve performance goals, and then collect and analyze the relevant data, the report said. The agency has received similar recommendations in recent years and has started to develop measures, but has not outlined specific steps and time frames for implementing the measures, GAO said.

In addition, the FAA personnel office should define and describe explicit ties between human capital management reform initiatives and the agency's overall program goals established under the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, the report said.

In 1996, the FAA announced sweeping personnel management system reforms, including a new pay-banding system that gives managers more flexibility to compensate employees on the basis of performance. The agency also started requiring supervisors to give employees more frequent feedback about their performance, undertook efforts to track its workforce skills and demographics, initiated new hiring policies and established a forum to allow union leaders and FAA management to exchange ideas to improve labor relations.

Many of these reforms were possible because lawmakers granted the FAA exemptions to Title 5 of United States Code and some of the other laws governing federal civilian personnel management in the 1995 Transportation Appropriations Act. For instance, the legislation allowed the FAA to form its own competitive hiring process, bypassing a centralized government hiring system. The more flexible pay-banding system required an exemption from Title 5.

"Congress provided these flexibilities in response to FAA's position that the inflexibility of federal personnel systems was one of the most important constraints to the agency's ability to be responsive to the airline industry's needs and to increase productivity in air traffic control operations," the GAO said.

But even though many of the reforms have been fully implemented, it is not clear that they were successful enough to warrant the FAA's exemptions from Title 5 and other federal personnel rules, according to the report.

The new pay system has reached all but a quarter of FAA employees whose unions have not signed an agreement on the issue. Officials told the GAO that the system has increased the agency's ability to attract and retain employees, but GAO was not convinced because of the minimal data presented, the report said. Nearly two-thirds of the 176 employees and managers interviewed for the report were critical of the reformed compensation system and told the GAO they either "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed" with the idea that the system is fair to all workers.

In other instances, the FAA provided GAO with data that did not paint a complete picture of the reforms' success, the report said. In support of a claim that the FAA had reduced the average time needed to fill job vacancies from six months to as little as six weeks, officials presented data pertaining only to the hiring of air marshals. Only 12 of 46 managers interviewed by GAO said the FAA's overall hiring speed had improved.

The FAA can make a convincing case that its reforms have worked if it begins to collect relevant data and sets a timeframe for measurement process. Other agencies that have requested exemptions from federal personnel law, such as NASA, or agencies that have already received exemptions, such as the Transportation Security Administration, could learn from the FAA's experiences, the report concluded.

The Transportation Department and FAA generally agreed with the GAO report, but added that the reform effort is very complex and said they have been making significant progress in developing needed measures.

In August 2002, the Office of Personnel Management recognized the FAA's Office of Research and Acquisition for its employee management system, which brings employees and supervisors together several times a year to discuss individual performance goals and ensure these steps are linked to the office's strategic goals. The program won OPM's "Performance, Incentives and Leadership Linked to Achieve Results" award.

The Office of Research and Acquisition program has "created much more focus for managers and employees and has helped employees understand how they fit in with the agency's mission," according to Lauraline Gregory, who helped design the system and is the director of the FAA's office of business management.

In addition, the acquisition office's revamped personnel focuses on measurable results, Gregory said. Each worker is accountable for reaching certain goals each year, making the system particularly effective, she added. "It's not a shopping list-the results expected are tailored to individual employees."

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