Acting federal personnel director Margaret Weichert says agencies shouldn't be rating employees on a curve.

Acting federal personnel director Margaret Weichert says agencies shouldn't be rating employees on a curve. OPM

Trump Administration Calls for Fewer Performance Awards, Stricter Rating System for Feds

Only civil servants who deliver what the "American public should be able to expect" should get bonuses, OPM says.

The Trump administration has instructed agencies to give out fewer performance-based awards to federal employees and to make it more difficult for workers to receive top performance ratings. 

In a pair of complementary memoranda, Office of Personnel Management acting Director Margaret Weichert said agencies should do a better job of providing a meaningful distinction in levels of performance. She simultaneously said agencies should spend less money on rating-based awards in favor of bonuses for “special acts.” 

The administration first notified agencies of its intended reforms during the fiscal 2020 budget process. Agencies will now have to submit formal plans spelling out changes to their bonus system in next fiscal year’s blueprints. Those proposals will include how much each agency will spend on awards, explain how the plans will “result in improved outcomes and organizational performance,” and describe how they will shift funds away from performance-based awards and toward awards for a specific contribution from an individual.

In issuing the memos, the administration rescinded all previous OPM and Office of Management and Budget guidance on awards with one exception: a freeze on discretionary bonuses for political appointees that President Obama instituted in 2010 will remain in effect. 

OPM also reminded agencies to allocate awards in a manner that “provides meaningfully greater rewards to top performers.” To accomplish this, Weichert said, agencies must institute “rigorous performance standards.” Agencies should not be “grading on a curve” and should use “objective criteria” with specific benchmarks for assessing workers. 

Most federal agencies use a mix of OPM-approved performance appraisal systems, which primarily include five rating levels: unacceptable, minimally successful, fully successful, exceeds fully successful, and outstanding. President Trump’s budget proposals have noted that more than 99% of employees are rated “fully successful” or higher. The Government Accountability Office found the same in a 2016 report, while 61% were rated “outstanding” or “exceeds fully successful.” The White House has proposed creating a $1 billion interagency performance fund to reward top employees in lieu of across-the-board pay raises, though the idea has not garnered any momentum in Congress.  

In the new memos, OPM clarified that “fully successful” should “never be characterized as a low level of performance or be phrased in such a way as to define unacceptable performance.” Only employees who “contribute meaningfully to an agency’s success” should receive such a rating. OPM called on agencies to clearly spell out the differences between each rating level so both supervisors and employees can clearly understand those distinctions. 

Only employees who receive at least a fully successful rating are eligible for a performance-based monetary award. 

“Fully successful should be seen as the category for employees who are meeting valid performance standards designed to deliver on what the American public should be able to expect from their civil servants,” Weichert wrote. 

Ratings above that level should go only to employees who proactively solve potential problems before they materialize or provide high-level performance in a challenging context over a sustained period of time, she added. 

Linda Springer, a former OPM director under President George W. Bush and Trump’s first federal personnel czar as a senior advisor at OMB, said in response to the memos that awards must be consistent with achievement in order for any recognition structure to be successful. She also noted that performance metrics must be mutually agreed upon by an employee and supervisor, and enable managers to “engage, provide feedback and support the employees' success throughout the performance period.”

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