Man and Machine

How well will the computer rate you?

One of the first topics batted around as Defense Department officials developed the new National Security Personnel System was which technologies would be necessary to support the new design.

Department officials wanted to avoid any mistakes in payroll processing, performance ratings and job classification that could crop up when switching systems. Glitches could give critics and a skeptical workforce real reason for doubt, says Brad Bunn, deputy program executive officer for NSPS.

But as plans for NSPS, which scuttles the General Schedule in favor of broad paybands that give managers more hiring and promoting flexibility, got under way in 2003, Bunn and his team saw an opportunity to not only update human resources technologies, but to enhance them as well.

Can technology improve the most people-centered area of government management?

Enter the Pentagon's new unnamed automated performance management system. Eleven thousand employees, the first group working under NSPS, will have access to the system in mid-June. Employees and their supervisors will log on and create their own password-protected computerized performance plans. The automated plans will include goals, called work objectives in NSPS-speak, that supervisors will link, literally, to the department's strategic objectives. Automated performance plans will have "a 'www' kind of link," Bunn says. "So when somebody pulls up the performance plan, it will launch [a strategic plan's] Web site."

Bunn says technical links will guide supervisors in finding real-world connections between their employees' job functions and the department's strategic plan. Automated plans also will correlate to benchmarks so employees can evaluate their performance. Employees and managers are supposed to check in periodically with the system to monitor and update performance plans, promoting more feedback and interaction than the annual mandatory evaluation.

Under NSPS, managers will determine employee pay raises based on performance evaluations, rather than a predetermined schedule. Officials designed the automated system to help with that, too. Ratings, based on performance evaluations, will be calculated in relation to all employees in a pay pool. The program will calculate pay raises, and an embedded spreadsheet will enable supervisors to see how their employees match up and to explore different scenarios for ratings and pay.

Automated performance management also will yield advantages on a policy level. Bunn says NSPS managers plan to pull data from the system to find out how often performance evaluations are taking place and whether the new personnel system is triggering more hands-on management.

Only employees already in the new personnel system will have access to automated performance management, but Patricia Bradshaw, deputy undersecretary of Defense for civilian personnel policy, is launching an automated human resources system that will be available to everyone.

Called MyBiz, the soon-to-be-deployed system will offer self-service access to personnel information. Gone will be the days of multiple phone calls to the human resources department. Now, employees will be able to log on to get information about their salaries, benefits, awards and bonuses. They also will be able to update their personal files, revise information on their disability status and foreign language abilities, and correct errors. Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col Ellen Krenke said the department developed MyBiz "to make available state-of-the-art technology to its workforce in keeping with private sector trends."

But technological advances in federal human resources seem dated when compared with those in the private sector. Software analyst Vinnie Mirchandani, founder of Deal Architect and a consultant who follows human resources technology trends in the private sector, says innovations are sprouting fast. Private companies are using social networking tools to find the true leaders among employees, introducing more sophisticated automated interview mechanisms and providing computer mice that compensate for hand tremors, to name a few innovations.

Federal human resources employees in the government want to get there. In April, the consulting firm EquaTerra Inc. asked HR professionals in the public sector about their top objectives for the coming year. The No. 1 goal was to make human resources more strategic, followed by improving services to employees and gaining access to new technologies. "What is interesting," says Glenn K. Davidson, EquaTerra's president, "is how the respondents' top three identified goals are interrelated. Improving access to technology is truly an enabler to becoming more strategic and improving public service."

Technology is secondary in reforms, according to Marilee Fitzgerald, the director of workforce issues and international programs for civilians at the Defense Department. Speaking in February at a conference in Washington, Fitzgerald answered a question about how technologies like Resumix Inc., an automated hiring subsidiary of Yahoo, figure in the department's personnel overhaul. "They're the enablers: Resumix, [Defense Civilian Personnel Data System], lines of business," Fitzgerald said. "I don't underestimate the importance of tools like Resumix."

But technological advances will ease personnel changes only after the real work of personnel reform is complete, she says. That means wrapping up basics such as updating the competencies on which employees are rated in pay-for-performance schemes. "Once we define our competencies, they help us," Fitzgerald says. "They're the tools; they're not going to drive the change."

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