Measuring Federal Employee Performance

Posted on October 18, 2016
For many federal employees, October means another cycle of performance appraisals and ratings. Federal agencies need employees who do good work, so today’s WatchBlog looks at what it takes to rate federal employees, how they measure up, and what to do with poor performers. How can agencies effectively manage performance? An effective performance management system is more than just checking boxes on a form once or twice a year. It is a whole set of activities that help managers plan, monitor, develop, rate, and reward employee performance. We outlined a set of key practices for effective performance management that, collectively, create a clear line of sight for an employee to see how his or her performance directly affects the organization’s success. Here are some examples of those practices:
  • aligning individual performance expectations with organizational goals
  • making meaningful distinctions between acceptable and outstanding performance
  • appropriately rewarding employees who perform at the highest level
  • addressing poor performance
  • providing ongoing and relevant feedback to employees
Where everyone is above average?  Most federal employees receive ratings in the top performance categories. We found that more than 85% of federal executives received top ratings for fiscal years 2010 through 2013—with some federal departments giving even more of their executives top ratings. As a result, we recommended refining the government executives’ performance appraisal, or performance rating, system. In that recommendation, we suggested that the Office of Personnel Management—which oversees all policy for federal human resource departments—to not certify any appraisal system where “outstanding” is the most common rating. It’s not just executives who received high performance ratings. We found that less than 1% of the non-executive federal workforce were rated “minimally successful” or “unacceptable.” In fact, nearly all non-executive federal employees were rated as “fully successful" or higher, and over 60% were rated in the top two categories: “exceeds fully successful” and “outstanding.”

Figure 1: Permanent, Non-Senior Executive Service Employee Performance Rating Outcomes (All Rating Systems, Calendar Year 2013)(Excerpted from GAO-16-520R)

Poor performers It sounds like federal employees are performing pretty well—but even a small number of poor performers can drag down morale and make an agency less efficient. This happens in part because other, more successful employees have to shoulder the burden of a poor performer. Federal agencies have 3 avenues to address employees' poor performance, all of which require strong leadership:
  1. Manage day-to-day performance by providing regular performance feedback to employees. This can be a better alternative than dismissing an employee, but supervisors aren’t always skilled at addressing employee performance issues.
  2. Use probationary periods to assess new employees. Probationary periods can give supervisors time to determine whether to keep an employee, but supervisors often don’t use this time to make and act on decisions based upon an employee's performance.
  3. Dismiss poor performers following the agency policies and processes. Those processes are more time- and resource-intensive for agencies than probationary dismissals.
We made several recommendations to help agencies deal with poor performers.