Are So Many Feds Really That Exceptional?

GAO study finds that 61 percent of federal employees received top performance ratings in 2013.

Federal employees in higher pay grades were more likely to receive top performance ratings in 2013, according to a new watchdog report.

Seventy-eight percent of permanent General Schedule employees in grades 13 to 15 received performance ratings of “outstanding” and “exceeds fully successful” during calendar year 2013, the Government Accountability Office found, while 67 percent of those in grades 9 through 12 received top scores. Sixty percent of GS employees in lower grades (1-8) garnered “outstanding” and “exceeds fully successful” performance ratings.

Overall, about 61 percent of employees included in GAO’s snapshot were rated as “outstanding” or “exceeds fully successful.” A whopping 99 percent of all permanent, non-SES employees received performance ratings of “fully successful” or above during the period GAO reviewed. Roughly 77 percent of the employees in GAO’s study are GS employees; the rest are covered by other pay scales, including the Federal Wage System.

GAO looked at performance ratings for non-Senior Executive Service employees at the 24 major federal agencies in calendar year 2013. Agencies use a mix of Office of Personnel Management-approved performance appraisal systems, ranging from two levels (pass/fail) to five rating levels: unacceptable, minimally successful, fully successful, exceeds fully successful, and outstanding. Most employees included in GAO’s May report were rated using a five-level system.

The data in the report echoed findings from a January 2015 GAO study concluding that most federal agencies were not making meaningful distinctions in performance ratings and bonuses for senior executives. In that report, about 85 percent of career senior executives received “outstanding” or “exceeds fully successful” ratings in their performance reviews between fiscal years 2010 and 2013, at the same time that agencies made smaller distinctions in the amount of individual bonuses, the watchdog found. That has created a system where nearly everyone was considered outstanding, and truly exceptional senior executives are treated similarly to their above-average peers when it comes to performance ratings and awards, GAO concluded. In October 2015, OPM’s new rules creating a more uniform performance evaluation system across government for senior executives took effect.

“The transparency and credibility of the performance management process is enhanced when meaningful performance distinctions are made – it helps ensure the promotion, pay, bonus, staffing, and other rewards and recognition decisions are based on employees’ performance and results,” the watchdog said in the May report.

It appears based on GAO’s latest findings that the lack of real distinction in performance ratings is not just an issue within the SES, but also throughout the federal ranks.

“A cultural shift might be needed among agencies and employees to acknowledge that a rating of 'fully successful’ is already a high bar and should be valued and rewarded, and that ‘outstanding’ is a difficult level to achieve,” GAO stated. “In our examination of SES ratings and performance awards, we noted that one of the five case study agencies included in our review communicates the message that a ‘fully successful’ rating is not average or ordinary; it demonstrates a significant level of accomplishment.”