Letter: Pay for performance bad from taxpayers' perspective
In response to "Risher: The IT pay conundrum," pay for performance is both a concept and the name of an administration program.
Too often the administration's program is judged on the basis of the concept. As a 10-year veteran of the Senior Executive Service, I applaud the concept of pay for performance. However, as a taxpayer who pays for public service performance, I seriously question this administration's approach and program. In both my own experience and in talking with many others in SES, we found some problematic issues. (Since I am out of government I can talk about this now.)
They included: Quotas were in fact in use, although not rigidly. If your boss or your group was politically in favor, you could go above the quotas, but if not, your group was the balance point below average to obtain overall goals. Most discussions started with, "Now there are no quotas," and then they told us the target numbers to meet.
Second, having established measurable goals at the start of the year, they were not used at the end to do the ratings. This is a common comment I have heard. still very much a gut feeling of the senior political appointee, who did all the ratings of SES employees in our organization regardless of to whom the person reported.
Third, performance for a political appointee is performance on political goals, not quality of service, integrity of science or other such public service values. Without imputing their integrity in any way, that's just the human reality of their having political goals (appropriately so) and of having staff they want to have help them achieve goals. In worst cases, it's very crass. In best cases, it's subtle influence on ratings.
Finally, in all my time as a manager in government, I never found the political class willing to back tough action on performance issues for GS staff unless it was an issue on policy -- but bad attendance, general poor performance, etc., was encouraged to be swept under the rug so as not to tangle them into something where race or other hot topics might be involved. In fact, I know of cases where the Administrator of my old Agency ordered cases to be dropped that were clearly winnable cases, so that they could avoid the heat.
So although I support pay for performance, the administration needs to ask questions: "Who judges performance?" and "What performance are we judging?" We are seeing the elimination of the civil service and a fast return to a spoils system under this administration. Just look at Justice Department mess, Katrina results from the Federal Emergency Management Agency mess, the Environmental Protection Agency's dropped enforcement, etc. Any reform must not take us back to the spoils system and I am afraid that is what we are getting, not necessarily on purpose, but the result nonetheless.