Last year, less than half of senior government executives were given the highest performance rating available under new, more stringent evaluation systems, according to Office of Personnel Management statistics.
Fiscal 2005 marks the second of two full years that members of Senior Executive Service worked under a pay-for-performance system that uses more meticulous performance ratings to determine raises, and the second year SES employees saw a downtrend in ratings under the new system.
From fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2005, the portion of the approximately 6,000 SES employees receiving the highest performance rating dropped 17 percentage points, from 61 percent to 44 percent.
OPM, which oversees agency evaluation systems, said the lower ratings show that agencies are using more robust evaluation systems.
"The data indicate that federal agencies are taking seriously the requirement to develop rigorous appraisal systems and to make meaningful distinctions in performance ratings and pay," said Linda Springer, OPM's director, in a letter to agency heads.
But much of that decline is thanks to the Defense and Education departments, which switched last year from three-tier to five-tier rating systems, under which employees can receive ratings of "unacceptable," "minimally successful," "fully successful," "exceeds expectations" or "outstanding."
Defense saw a 67.6 percent drop in the number of executives rated at the highest level, because of the increased number of rating options available. Every agency now has either four or five rating levels for senior executives.
Carol Bonosaro, who heads the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit professional association that advocates for members of the SES, disputed OPM's interpretation of the figures.
"I think it's unfortunate that OPM seems to define progress by the decrease in those who receive the highest ratings," Bonosaro said, "because you know I think there's a supposition there, clearly, that executives were being incorrectly rated at the highest level, and I don't know that anyone has really proven that yet."
The average SES raise last year was 3.8 percent, equivalent to $5,628, bringing the average executive's salary from $146,383 in 2004 to $151,266 in 2005.
The average salary boost in 2005 for executives receiving the highest rating was 4.1 percent, with the next two tiers down receiving 3.2 percent and 2.0 percent average raises. OPM said the downward slope of those numbers proves that ratings and pay raises are properly linked.
SES raises varied by agency. The Agriculture and Housing and Urban Development departments each gave an average 5.3 percent raise to their executives last year, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's average hike was only 2.7 percent.
Bonosaro said averages are limited as a tool for analysis.
"Two percent, that's an average," Bonosaro said. "So how many people got nothing, how many people got 3 percent? There is no reason why anyone performing at 'fully successful' should not get a cost of living adjustment."
OPM's analysis comes much earlier this year than last, when the numbers were not released until October.