Performance chief calls for more nuanced employee ratings

A top Obama administration management official said on Wednesday that overhauls of federal hiring and performance appraisal systems were critical pieces of a broader plan to make the government more efficient.

"Many of our [personnel] policies are bureaucratic, cumbersome and outdated," federal Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients said during the National Treasury Employees Union's annual legislative conference. "We don't focus on people as a primary tool for achieving our mission."

The hiring process must be streamlined, Zients told the audience of regional NTEU union officials, pointing to three pages of dense text outlining the Housing and Urban Development Department's internal procedures and requirements. While HUD already has started to change its system, similar reforms are needed governmentwide, Zients said to applause.

He also emphasized the need to improve training, development and performance appraisal tools. Noting that only a small number of federal employees receive poor job performance ratings, Zients said the government must do a better job of distinguishing both exceptional and bad workers. He didn't elaborate on what shape such reforms might take.

The former Washington businessman said government lagged behind the private sector in using information technology to increase productivity. Retirement records could be processed more quickly with better technology, he noted, showing a photo of a government storage facility in Pennsylvania that he said reminded him of the cavernous warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where artifacts are stored only to be forgotten. OPM is converting those files into electronic records, but Zients said this is just one of many such projects that must be undertaken governmentwide.

"I believe that IT represents the largest gap between the private and public sectors," he said.

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