OPM Proposal to Boost Max Pay for Top-Ranked Feds Draws Praise

Senior professionals at federal agencies would be eligible for higher pay if their appraisal system passes muster with the Office of Personnel Management, under a recently issued proposed rule.

The rule would implement a law from 2008 and drew praise from the Senior Executives Association, which represents Senior Executive Service employees as well as Senior Leaders and Senior Scientific and Professional workers. The latter group -- known generally as senior professionals -- would be entitled to a maximum base pay equal to Level Two of the executive schedule, currently $187,000, if their agency's performance appraisal system is certified by OPM. SEA called the rule “long overdue.”

“It is critical that agencies have and utilize all tools available to retain and appropriately compensate executive leaders, particularly those with specialized skills and knowledge,” SEA President Bill Valdez wrote in a comment on the proposed rule.

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Employees would be eligible to receive the pay bumps following a full performance cycle after OPM had certified their agency’s system. Agencies would have 14 days to explain to senior professionals who do not receive any pay adjustments the rationale for that decision. All proposed performance awards for those employees would face an examination from a central review panel, similar to the manner in which a Performance Review Board certifies SES bonuses.

Under the rule, agencies would have to adjust SES employees’ pay and award bonuses within five months of receiving a performance rating requiring them.

OPM proposed adding “communication of results” as a criterion for certifying performance appraisal systems, meaning agencies would be responsible for telling senior leaders the ratings distribution and the average pay adjustments and performance awards for each rating level. The rule would remove “relative performance” as a metric in measuring the performance for the highest-ranked feds, prohibiting agencies from looking at peer comparisons in issuing evaluations.

Not all of SEA’s feedback was positive, and the group noted agencies still had a long way to go toward modernizing and improving performance management.

“In general the methods utilized by the government are outdated, poorly executed and fail to truly distinguish performance that is really outstanding versus that which should be expected of senior leaders,” Valdez said.

In fiscal 2015, about 71 percent of career SES received a performance award.

OPM is also looking to lighten its workload through the rule; it proposed allowing agencies to decide internally if they were issuing ratings on an arbitrary or rotational basis. SEA called this provision “insufficient” in ensuring the integrity in the appraisal process. OPM also said it would no longer be involved in assessing all criteria in agencies’ performance measurement, saying it would generally allow internal approval with occasional, unannounced “spot checks.” It would also allow an agency to peer review another agency’s system. 

An OPM certification would last for 24 months. The agency said it proposed the changes based on “over a decade of experience with certification” as well as from an interagency work group created during the Obama administration as part of the president’s management agenda. 

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