Labor-management council reviews employee performance measures

Mike Charles/

Some differences in how labor leaders, managers and senior executives view issues such as performance reviews emerged Wednesday at the monthly meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations.

The crossagency leadership discussion group that convened at the Office of Personnel Management reviewed progress by two agencies trying out the Goals-Engagement-Accountability-Results high-performance management program. GEAR focuses on enhancing feedback to employees and aligning their performance with agency performance.

For Senior Executive Service members -- who have been under new performance standards since early 2012 -- this might mean an office or program head would receive an outstanding ranking only if the agency’s scores on relevant portions of the Employee Viewpoint Survey went up by 5 percent. The 5 percent requirement is being called a “game-changer.”

The Housing and Urban Development Department is nearing adoption of GEAR. “The game-changer is for all, because the SES stands for the government,” said Joseph Smith, HUD’s general deputy assistant secretary for housing. “They’re supposed to be a model, what others have aspirations to become.”

But William Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executives Association, expressed concern that requiring improvements from entire offices was not the main point of the SES performance management system, saying it shouldn’t be “controlling” what happens at other agency levels.

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley spoke in favor of the concept, asking, “How can a manager be outstanding if none of the employees are?” She worried, however, that the OPM-administered viewpoints survey is “seen as a contest, in which employees of one agency hope to jump over another agency. But it’s not a game, and we want to see agencies act on the feedback,” she added.

Kelley also questioned whether the five-number rankings can be translated to lower-level jobs, to which Smith replied, “it’s a work in progress.”

OBM Director John Berry said he discourages the “game approach,” viewing the survey as a “chance for honest and open feedback done with total confidentiality. Those who do take the game approach know that the agencies that do take it seriously find results reflected in later surveys,” he said. “There’s a lot of self-correcting going on.”

Shelley Metzenbaum, the Office of Management and Budget’s associate director for performance and personnel management, said she liked the GEAR pilot’s “focus on feedback.” The Obama administration, she added, is trying to “to change the employee viewpoint survey to drill down to individual questions, and OPM is pushing it as a tool for identifying problems and finding where to improve.”

The Veterans Affairs Department also presented GEAR results for its National Cemetery Administration. The labor-management council will review pilots under way at OPM, the Energy Department and the U.S. Coast Guard in September.

The council also heard about progress governmentwide in implementing the communications practice known as “pre-decisional involvement.” A report from NASA employees on how such early and extensive consultation with rank-and-file workers on a variety of management decisions -- anything from agency reorganization to building renovation -- saves money and improves employee satisfaction with decisions once fully implemented. NASA’s guidance was praised by Berry as a model.

Separately, Berry congratulated the council, noting, “the power of this table, this partnership,” in producing the just-released interim guidance on how to provide federal health insurance benefits to temporary federal firefighters. After President Obama this June visited the scene of dangerous wildfires in Colorado, he expressed disappointment that many of those battling the blazes lacked health insurance. So leaders at the Interior and Agriculture departments on the council worked with the National Federation of Federal Employees to craft the guidance that allows coverage. NFFE President William Dougan said he hoped such coverage could be extended to all temporary federal workers.

The council viewed a demonstration of the “MyCareer@VA” website, a new online tool considered a model for the government as a means to help federal employees explore the next step in their career paths.

For future business, the council agreed to consider guidance for implementing the new law allowing federal employees to opt for a phased retirement.

Berry began the meeting by presenting a bust of civil service patriarch Theodore Roosevelt to American Federation of Government Employees National President John Gage, who is retiring.

(Image via Mike Charles/

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