Managers ‘too timid’ in dealing with poor performers, OPM chief says

John Berry tells lawmakers at budget hearing that pay for performance is a work in progress.

The government's human resources chief told lawmakers on Friday that federal managers are "too timid" when it comes to disciplining poor performers in the workforce.

"I would not sit here before you and tell you that we have nailed pay for performance. We have not," said Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on OPM's fiscal 2012 budget request. Of poor performers, Berry said: "We can fire them, it's just that managers are not doing it."

Berry's comments came in response to questions from Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., about the correlation between pay and promotions in the federal workforce and performance, and whether managers have enough "carrots and sticks." Emerson is chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government.

The OPM director said improving the performance management system is the focus of a new working group within the Chief Human Capital Officers' Council. In public remarks last month at Gallaudet University in Washington, Berry called the government's current personnel performance reviews "infrequent and rote," and said the formal review process "seems to take place in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average."

On Friday, Berry told the subcommittee that the government "can do a lot better" when it comes to rewarding top performers and disciplining poor ones. "Quite frankly, if someone is not doing the job, we ought to fire them," he said, adding that managers should make greater use of performance improvement plans, which outline steps an employee must take during a specific time frame to rectify poor performance and remain gainfully employed.

But Patricia Niehaus, national president of the Federal Managers Association, said most managers and supervisors are not receiving the proper training on the available tools to discipline poor performers. "It's not that managers are timid or willfully ignoring their responsibilities," Niehaus said in a statement to Government Executive. "The General Schedule provides avenues for managers to deny step increases and terminate poor-performing employees, but managers must know these avenues exist to utilize them."

Friday's hearing was relatively cordial, particularly for a budget discussion. "The most qualifying aspect of your background is your experience as director of the National Zoo," Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., joked to Berry, referring to the headaches and complications that often can arise in the human resources field. Berry drew praise from Republicans and Democrats for OPM's health and wellness initiatives for federal employees, the agency's efforts to increase diversity within the government workforce, effective administration of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, and Berry's push to boost federal hiring of veterans, which resulted in an executive order.

OPM is requesting $258 million for fiscal 2012, an increase of about $18 million from the previous fiscal year. Berry said a large portion of the extra funds would go to hiring more staff to help implement the health care reform law and standing up the agency's new office of diversity and inclusion. Also, beginning in 2012, OPM will survey all civilian workers using its Employee Viewpoint Survey, an annual assessment of workers' attitudes toward their jobs.

To save money, Berry said OPM is terminating its retirement systems modernization program, designed to automate the federal retirement process through a large-scale project. "Eliminating the RSM program as a formal budget item will save at least $2 million in administrative costs while we conduct a bottom-up review of the retirement service process and maintain a focus on achievable goals to automate the retirement processing system," he said. The agency also is putting on hold the planned second phase of upgrades to its financial management system, the Consolidated Business Information System -- a move Berry said will save $41 million during the life of the project.