By William Wiley

As we’ve written in this newsletter previously, if your Uber driver picks you up promptly, takes you where you want to go quickly, and is in general nice to you, you rate her 5 stars because she’s done exactly what you wanted.

With this reality in mind, let’s look at some recent numbers from GAO relative to the 2013 federal employee summary performance ratings:

  • Most all agencies have a five-level (5-star) performance evaluation system: Outstanding, Exceeds, Fully, Minimal, Unacceptable.
  • 61% of GS-1 through GS-15 employees were rated either 4- or 5-stars.
  • The higher the grade level, the higher the rating; e.g., 78% of GS-13 and above employees were rated 4- or 5-stars, whereas only 67% of GS-9 through 12 employees received either of these ratings.

One commenter suggested that these findings are a bad reflection on performance management in the civil service by stating, “The GAO report is likely to add fuel to the debate about whether federal performance management is effective.”

No, no they are not. These are wonderful numbers.  They show that 2/3s to 3/4s of federal employees are doing just about the best we can expect from them.  Isn’t this what you would expect from a group of merit-based selectees who are among the best and the brightest? Isn’t that what a merit selection and promotion workforce is supposed to look like, including that those who rise in the ranks to the higher levels get better ratings (because they are better employees)?

It just blows me away when people look at numbers like these and think that there’s something wrong with our civil service performance management system. We get asked to rate and give feedback on so many things these days. If you owned a company and found out that your employees were all rated at the top of a scale, wouldn’t you be delighted? If you drive for Uber, and you consistently get 3-stars, you don’t drive for them much longer.

If people were assigned to work in the civil service randomly, then their performance ratings should follow a bell curve: most in the middle, and fewer 4s and 5s. However, selection into the civil service is the opposite of random. It’s based on merit: talent, education, and experience. Therefore, it should come as no surprise (at least no surprise to those who paid attention in statistics class) that most feds are rated highly.

Goodness knows that agency management could do a better job of removing poorly-performing employees. The Chairman of MSPB said several years ago that 5-7% of the federal workforce is not performing adequately. However, that is unrelated to the fact that most federal employees are doing a good job. That’s why they get good ratings. The world would be a better place if we would accept that we should expect 4- and 5-star ratings from a merit-based workforce, and focus our performance-management energy on getting rid of the bottom of the barrel.

And while we’re at it, making recommendations and all like we here at FELTG know how the government should be run, here are a couple more suggestions to you policy makers:

  • All government performance rating systems should go to a 5-star format. Get rid of the stupid names for levels. “Isn’t Exceptional a better rating than Outstanding?” If it’s good enough for TripAdvisor and Yelp (and Uber and Zagat and just about everybody else), then it should be good enough for the civil service.
  • Service recipients, either internal to the government (e.g., Feds who call an agency Information Technologist for help) or external (e.g., citizens who go to a social security for assistance), should be the primary source of performance ratings.
  • Employees should be required to wear a lapel pen visible to the entire world with their star-rating for the past year. Post ratings on the web.

Performance management systems should be based on both common sense and science. Understanding that high ratings are to be expected from a merit-based workforce satisfies both of those requirements.

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