OPM pushes for lower executive performance ratings

Too many federal executives are receiving top performance ratings and rewards, Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James suggested in a recent letter to agency chiefs.

James urged the political brass at agencies to rigorously hold executives accountable for measurable results. According to fiscal 2001 data, 83.7 percent of federal executives received the highest ratings available in their agencies' performance evaluation systems, down only slightly from 85.5 percent in fiscal 2000.

"I believe that most senior executives provide quality service to our citizens, but such a disproportionate share who were rated and rewarded in the very top ranks suggests that agencies weren't making meaningful distinctions between those with a record of truly outstanding performance and those who did what was expected," James said in the Sept. 20 letter.

James' letter reiterated points she made in a Nov. 1, 2001 memo, a month after the end of fiscal 2001. OPM is now collecting data on executive evaluations for fiscal 2002.

According to OPM data for fiscal 2001, 5,927 members of the Senior Executive Service received performance ratings. About 84 percent of those executives, or 4,961, received the highest rating in the three-, four- or five-level rating system at their agencies. At agencies with three-level rating systems, 99.5 percent of executives were awarded the top rating.

Governmentwide, only 12 executives received ratings below fully successful, the top rating in three-level systems and the mid-point level in five-level systems.

A little more than half of federal executives earned performance awards in fiscal 2001. Executive bonuses averaged $12,324 and totaled $37.9 million.

Senior executives' salaries in 2001 ranged from $117,479 to $133,700. Executive salaries are capped by a scale that includes congressional salaries. The cap has resulted in pay compression in the executive ranks.

The Senior Executive Service has a six-level pay scale. Because of pay compression, executives across the country at the top three of the six levels are all paid the same salary. In some locations, executives at the top four or top five levels all are paid the same. That means promotions in the executive ranks often come with no salary increase.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, said pay compression forces political appointees to rely more heavily on bonuses to compensate executives. In addition, she noted that compensation packages for executives outside of government often rely heavily on bonuses.

"It is not at all unusual in private industry that the majority of executives receive bonuses, so that the ones who don't get a message," Bonosaro said.

Bonosaro also said that executives rise to the top of government because they are superior performers, and the high ratings are a reflection of that. She also said the suggestion that executives are being rated more highly than they deserve could be bad for morale.

"I'd like to hear that they found something good to say about senior executives," Bonosaro said. "My dear departed mother used to have a saying: 'You don't catch flies with vinegar. You catch them with honey.' To be continually subjected to negative messages is not too good for morale."

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