"It seems those who administer this bonus program at the various agencies think all the Senior Executive Service employees are above average," Dorgan said in a statement. He asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct the review.
In fiscal 2006, 67.2 percent of SES employees received performance awards under a system established by Congress in 2003 that allows agencies to lift caps on base pay and total compensation for senior executives if the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget sign off. The average award for top-rated executives was $14,290.
For fiscal 2006, 43.4 percent of SES employees received ratings at the highest level for their performance. That figure actually has fallen since fiscal 2004, when 59.4 percent of senior executives received top ratings. The 2004 figure was inflated, however, by the 83.3 percent of Homeland Security Department executives who received that rating the first year the department was open for business.
"It's up to the agencies to decide how they define 'top performing,' but if they have a definition that includes 97 percent, they've not come up with a definition of top performers -- they've come up with a definition of everyone," said Barry Piatt, Dorgan's communications director.
As the percentage of employees with top ratings has fallen, the 67.2 percent of SES employees rewarded for their performance in fiscal 2006 was up 9.8 percent, from 57.4 percent in fiscal 2003. Five agencies -- the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, State and Transportation departments -- saw the number of senior executives receiving bonuses jump more than 20 percent between fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2006.
And at five agencies -- the Defense, Housing and Urban Development and Labor departments, the General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the program -- more than 90 percent of SES employees received bonuses in fiscal 2006.
"[Dorgan] has not attempted to diagnose or prescribe a cure at this point," Piatt said, "but he's noticed that there seems to be a significant problem here."