The Buzz

The rating game, searching the stacks and salad days.

Measuring Up

Just 44 percent of Senior Executive Service members received top ratings last year under agencies' new SES pay-for-performance system.

OPM Director Linda Springer crowed about the ratings drop, saying the data indicates that agencies are "taking seriously the requirement to develop rigorous appraisal systems and to make meaningful distinctions in performance ratings and pay."

But the 17 percentage point drop, down from 62 percent in fiscal 2004, isn't necessarily evidence that supervisors are suddenly spending more time separating wheat from chaff, or that there's more chaff to be found.

"Outstanding" ratings fell partly because for the first time the majority of agencies-including the Defense Department with the lion's share of SES members-have replaced three- or four-tier rating systems with five levels. Now there's a handy "exceeds expectations" category between "fully successful" and "outstanding," where agencies can stow high-achievers while still meeting the mandate to hold down "outstandings."

In fact, of the 5,905 SES employees rated in all systems, more than 80 percent were above "fully successful"-2,562 got "outstanding" ratings and 2,245 received "exceeds expectations." A much smaller number received "fully successful" ratings, with barely anyone falling below that.

OPM's push to reduce top ratings is worrisome to Carol Bonasaro, head of the Senior Executives Association. "It's unfortunate that OPM seems to define progress by the decrease in those who receive the highest ratings," she says. "There's a supposition there . . . that executives were being incorrectly rated at the highest level, and I don't know that anyone has really proven that yet." Even with the ratings dip, executives got a slightly higher average raise, 3.8 percent, in 2005 compared with 2004's 3.7 percent.

-Karen Rutzick

Ratings Game

The Office of Personnel Management says tougher evaluations pushed the portion of senior executives rated "outstanding"' from 61 percent to 44 percent over the past two years. But more than 80 percent still rated above "fully successful" in 2005.

44% Exceeds expectations
38% Outstanding
18% Fully successful
0.25% Minimally successful
Less than 0.03% Unacceptable
Total: 5,905
* Percentages do not total 100% due to rounding.

Source: Office of Personnel Management

Searching the Stacks

Information that could prevent terrorism is stacking up all over government, but agencies still aren't sharing it at nearly the rate or depth necessary to forestall an attack. It is overclassified, hoarded and controlled by agencies that claim to own it. Decision-makers have too little contact with analysts, know too little about how information is collected, can't discern the reliability of sources and don't share among themselves.

The Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age issued its third report, "Mobilizing Information to Prevent Terrorism," in July with a raft of recommendations to repair the still-sorry state of counterterrorism information sharing, including:

  • Create a new standard for accessing and sharing data collected by government agencies, the task force urges. Settle on mission- or threat-based justifications -such as "tracing of terrorism-related financial transactions," "responding to threat to civil aviation" or "locating known or suspected terrorists"-that are pre-authorized uses to which data can be put.
  • Build into the business rules of the systems containing data the process of claiming an authorized use, identifying oneself as eligible and getting cleared.
  • Create a safe harbor for federal employees authorized to share information in case that sharing is judged improper later. Risk aversion was a significant barrier to pre-Sept. 11 sharing, according to the task force, and a safe-harbor provision would reduce the risk of criticism, career damage and even prosecution. "If rules . . . are inadequate, policymakers should focus on changing them, not on punishing career employees," the report says.
  • Pull together and make widely available searchable directories of resources, services, people and data. "Knowing where relevant information is, or with whom it is, will be more important than having direct access to the information," the report noted. "Connecting information seekers with data stewards will result in increased collaboration and better analysis."

Salad Days

It's hot. You got home late from work and you're hungry. Isn't it great to be able to grab a bag of clean, fresh mixed lettuce from the frig and throw together a salad in minutes?

No peeling apart leaves, washing, spinning and tearing. No enforced week of romaine because you have to use it before it spoils. No mess-in-a-bag because you didn't. It's a miracle of modern living and it's all in the packaging.

Without special wrappings, known as films in the trade, fresh cut vegetables and fruits wouldn't stay that way for long. The film permits oxygen to flow in at a certain rate, allowing the contents to "breathe." Every peach, pea, lettuce leaf and carrot has its own oxygen requirement, so hundreds of films are available to match. Naturally, our government is trying to help.

The Agricultural Research Service's Produce Quality and Safety Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., is improving "modified atmosphere packaging" to help produce "breathe" slowly and thus stay fresh longer. Researchers have prolonged the shelf life of romaine, carrots and Salad Savoy, a new vegetable related to kale and cabbage. Cilantro, a fast-breathing herb, has proved especially hard to keep fresh, but ARS researchers have come up with a film that does it for 14 days.

Browning is a big problem for purveyors of sliced fruit, especially apples. ARS is on the case. Dipping the slices in antimicrobial solutions keeps them looking fresh for as long as three weeks. ARS-developed solutions eliminate the listeria and salmonella, a great contribution, no matter how you slice it.