Ex-HR Chiefs: Some Federal Managers Just Can’t Manage

A trio of former OPM directors advocates for more accurate employee evaluations and a reassessment of federal compensation.

The government should rethink how it evaluates and rewards federal workers, in part to help improve the reputation of civil servants among lawmakers and the public, former executive branch officials said on Thursday.

“There is still a lot of phoniness in the appraisal systems” agencies use to evaluate employees’ job performance, said Constance Berry Newman, director of the Office of Personnel Management during the George H.W. Bush administration, at a panel discussion in Washington with two other former OPM chiefs. Supervisors and managers “should be marked down when they are not properly appraising their staffs,” Newman said.

The current process isn’t working, and it’s undermining confidence in government, said Newman, who is now special counsel for African affairs at The Carmen Group. “What happens is, you get a tough evaluator, and then all the people working for that evaluator are in a worse position when they compete with those who have weak evaluators, and then there is this pressure for everybody to dumb the whole system down.” Performance, Newman said, has “a great influence” on how the public and Congress regard government. “A lot of it is unfair reporting,” by the media, she added, “but some of it is fair reporting.”

Part of the problem is that some managers simply are not good at their jobs, largely because of the government’s antiquated system of promoting employees based on seniority, said former Clinton OPM Director Janice Lachance. “Some people just stink at being supervisors,” said Lachance, now CEO of the Special Libraries Association. “Yet it’s the only way to reward them for their expertise, for their experience, for their contribution. That’s just a crazy rule. How can we start getting rid of that?”

The comments from Newman and Lachance came during a relatively frank discussion on federal workforce issues, including pay-for-performance, recruitment strategies and agencies’ budget constraints, as well as OPM’s relationship with the rest of government, including Congress and the White House. The Coalition for Effective Change, a group of federal employee and good-government advocates, hosted Thursday’s event.

Linda Springer, who served as head of OPM during the George W. Bush administration, said paying for performance also means investing in and rewarding valuable employees, and ensuring the “proper levels” of compensation and recognition are available to yield results. “One of the philosophical notions that I have trouble with is that we can do everything on the cheap…I think that’s a recipe for poor performance,” said Springer, an executive director in the government and public sector practice at Ernst and Young. “I think if you don’t fund things, activities, people and other things that go with it to ensure success, then you get what you pay for.” Springer rejected the “do more with less” mantra that has become standard operating procedure in government. “I really, really have a strong aversion to doing more with less,” she said. “Take out those two middle words, and just do less.”

Taking that kind of initiative, however, is difficult in today’s political environment, the three former federal HR chiefs acknowledged, particularly when Congress has its eye on federal compensation. OPM, long considered a backwater agency, also has had a tough time historically asserting itself within the administration and figuring out its role alongside the Office of Management and Budget. “I worry that the ‘M’ in OMB is often overshadowed by the budget part in OMB, and so they get wrapped up in decision-making by the numbers,” said Lachance. “That’s the agency’s job, I understand…but for me, it was a daily struggle to maintain OPM’s standing to make sure I had a voice in the West Wing, to make sure that OPM’s opinion was heard.”

To Lachance, OPM’s role is to be “a strong, independent voice” for the civil service, and that involves navigating some tricky terrain. The former Clinton OPM director said the federal benefits structure has to be reassessed. “The millennials are looking for different sorts of benefits,” Lachance said. “Perhaps a fixed retirement benefit isn’t as important to them…I’m not saying change that. I’m not going to go on that third rail, but you know there are specific things they are looking for that the federal government just isn’t competitive in,” she said, mentioning paid maternity leave as an example. The younger generation also realizes that government jobs are not the only, or best, venue for making an impact the way they once were; in fact, there are a wealth of opportunities now in the non-profit world and other sectors where the hiring process is faster and less of a hassle, she pointed out.

In other words, Uncle Sam needs to up his game to attract talented hires. “I think we’ve lived off the spirit of public service,” Springer said. “At some point, that car is gonna run out of gas.”

(Image via emojoez/Shutterstock.com)