Obama Administration to Bring Tighter Oversight to Senior Execs’ Bonuses, Performance Reviews

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The Obama administration will impose next month a new, more standardized performance system for the federal government’s top career civil servants, issuing a final rule on Friday, nine months after officials first proposed the plan.

The Office of Personnel Management’s new regulations will go into effect Oct. 26, creating new standards for Senior Executive Service appraisal. OPM said the new system allows for flexibility and lays the groundwork for good performance management, and the governmentwide structure is optional for agencies to adopt.

The purpose of the rule is to “help agencies design performance appraisal systems” for SESers “that support a consistent approach for managing senior executive performance,” OPM wrote.

Each agency will have to designate an official to oversee the performance management system and issue guidelines for appraisal, and OPM will designate an official of its own to oversee those officials. The rule expands the power of performance review boards, allowing them to weigh in on performance awards for those in the SES. The boards will be required to consider overall agency performance when making their recommendations.

The new guidance would expand the rating levels for senior executives from three to five. The new categories will be outstanding, exceeds fully successful, fully successful, minimally satisfactory and unsatisfactory.

One agency, commenting on the proposed rule, raised concerns with language designating “outstanding” performances as “rare.” The agency said it seemed as if OPM was creating a quota for top-level ratings, but the human resources office noted in its guidance the word was not intended to be a “quantitative descriptor.” OPM also said it did not intend to imply that only level-five SESers were performing at a “high quality,” as it expects every senior executive to do so.

The Senior Executives Association -- which has long lobbied for a more uniform approach to SES evaluations, saying it would clarify how executives are rated and create less disruption for supervisors moving among agencies -- also weighed in with comments on the proposed rule. The group said OPM should codify a specific office tasked with overseeing performance management, but the agency said it was unnecessary because its commitment to “providing agencies guidance and support in designing and implementing” their systems was already clear.

Agencies creating their own SES evaluation systems will have to use “critical elements of OPM-validated executive competencies,” the agency said. They will also have to -- per an SEA request-- establish timelines for communicating performance plans, conducting appraisals, determining ratings and letting the executives know how they were graded. Agencies will have to provide those ratings in writing to their top managers.

OPM declined to spell out exactly who should be responsible for creating that timeline, nor did it prescribe how to ensure compliance from top agency leaders and political appointees. The final rule will give agencies broader authority to find a high-ranking official to review a performance rating, but it clarified that the individual cannot have been involved with issuing the initial grade.

The new appraisal system will require agencies to consider customer and employee perspectives when evaluating SES managers. Addressing concerns from commenters, OPM said agencies “should be clear on how the requirements will be measured and make executives aware of those assessment methods.” 

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