GAO grades OPM’s leadership on workforce changes

Senior agency officials say they lack confidence in the ability of the Office of Personnel Management to provide the necessary leadership for instituting new pay and employee evaluation methods governmentwide. And they want OPM to treat them as partners in the process rather than act as rulemaker and enforcer.

Those executive views appear in a new Government Accountability Office report, “OPM: Key Lessons Learned to Date for Strengthening Capacity to Lead and Implement Capital Reforms.” The report reviews the federal government’s progress on changing how it evaluates employees’ job performance. By law, OPM and the Office of Management and Budget must certify agencies’ employee evaluation procedures before they will let agencies adopt flexible compensation systems that give managers a larger say in determining employee pay.

According to GAO, progress has been sluggish. Of the 33 performance appraisal systems that OPM and OMB certified in 2006, only one — the Labor Department’s system for evaluating Senior Executive Service employees ---æ received full certification. The others are operating under provisional certification, which means they do not meet all of the criteria for full certification. Agencies with full certification must seek recertification every two years.

The only two agencies that OPM fully certified in 2004 — the General Services Administration and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation — failed to retain full certification when they reapplied in 2006.

The GAO study found that OPM continually raises the bar for certification, without always informing agencies of the changes or giving them the guidance they need to meet the new criteria.

“Several executive branch agency officials commented that OPM conveyed a ‘we’ll know it when we see it’ method of communicating expectations and was thus unable to effectively communicate to agencies their expectations regarding the senior executive performance appraisal system certification process,” the report states. In 2003, Congress authorized a performance-based pay system for members of the Senior Executive Service, who are among the highest-paid federal officials.

OPM told GAO that it is learning as it goes along what the standards for evaluating employees should be and how it can help agencies meet those standards.

GAO said OPM would benefit from conducting an agencywide assessment of its own workforce. And GAO recommended that OPM take needed steps to maintain or acquire the workforce skills and competencies it needs to lead the workforce management policy transformation that is under way governmentwide as a result of recent legislation.

OPM Director Linda Springer responded in a letter to the GAO report. She said that by instituting business disciplines and practices, OPM is making demonstrable progress in raising performance levels. “Changes of this type do not happen overnight,” Springer wrote.

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