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OPM Could Do More to Help Agencies Fight Perception High-Performers Aren't Rewarded

Watchdog finds the government’s HR agency does not update its website enough, and it does not share its research into private sector innovations in performance management.

A government watchdog agency reported Tuesday that the Office of Personnel Management could be more proactive in its efforts to improve performance management practices at federal agencies.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report examining recent governmentwide responses to aspects of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey and found that while federal workers largely had confidence in most elements of the performance management process, that satisfaction dropped off when it came to rewarding employees for performance.

“From 2010 through 2017, surveyed employees generally demonstrated positive responses to FEVS statements related to four of OPM’s five performance management phases, including: planning and setting expectations, monitoring performance, developing the capacity to perform and rating performance,” GAO wrote. “Employees had the lowest levels of agreement with statements related to rewarding performance (or an estimated 39 percent positive response).”

Despite those low marks, analysts found that when separating the responses of rank-and-file employees and supervisors, the supervisors had a much more positive opinion of how rewards are doled out.

“Specifically, the responses to the statement, ‘Promotions in my work unit are based on merit,’ varied the most based upon the supervisory status of the employee,” GAO wrote. “Senior leaders agreed or strongly agreed with this statement at an average estimated 40 percentage points more than employees in a nonsupervisory role.”

But these figures are not uniform across the federal government. GAO highlighted four agencies where employees are much more satisfied with the whole of their performance management systems: the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Drug Enforcement Agency and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Although those agencies have their own performance management systems, GAO highlighted four commonalities that it said could be applied in other organizations to improve outcomes: a strong organizational culture and dedication to an agency’s mission; data driven decision-making using FEVS and other surveys; a focus on training for managers; and improved internal communication from agency management.

But GAO found that while OPM is expected to share innovations and tools to help agencies improve their HR functions, it has fallen behind in this role. One way the agency could improve its communications with agencies would be more regular updates to its website, GAO said.

“OPM has issued training, guidance, and other performance management related resources since the last website update in June 2016,” the watchdog wrote. “Specifically, we examined more than 100 performance management related online links on both OPM’s and the [Chief Human Capital Officers] Council’s websites, and found that in some instances, the CHCO Council’s website included more up-to-date information issued by OPM that was not found on OPM’s performance management website.”

Additionally, although OPM conducts routine monitoring of “innovative” management systems in the private sector, it lacks criteria to judge whether such practices could work in the federal government, and does not share its findings with agencies.

“Without OPM sharing their research results, agencies may be unaware of current practices in the performance management field because they may not be conducting their own research,” GAO wrote. “[One] of our case study agencies told us that in the absence of OPM providing research results, the agency used its own resources to research and identify leading practices in the private sector that could potentially apply to their own performance management system . . . Officials at this agency stated that OPM’s guidance was not modernized to the extent that the human capital and performance management industry was changing.”

GAO recommended that the OPM director, in consultation with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, establish a process for more regularly updating OPM’s performance management website and make information more easily accessible, develop a mechanism for agencies to routinely share promising performance management practices, and develop a way to identify and share OPM’s research into innovative practices in the private sector. OPM concurred with all recommendations.

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