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Death of pay-for-performance: For better or worse?

Some federal employees believe that the National Security Personnel System, the federal government’s fledgling pay-for-performance system, was a bad idea from the get-go and that its demise could not come soon enough. But other feds take a more benign view, arguing that pay-for-performance is still a good concept, even if NSPS itself turned out to be a miserable failure.

That pretty much summarizes the range of reader reaction to Thursday’s news that Congress hoped to put an end to NSPS. According to a congressional report on the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, lawmakers would like the Defense Department to pull the plug on the system by Jan. 1, 2012.

“Good riddance to NSPS,” wrote oracle2world. “No one can really determine what is important or not in 'performance,' and it just encourages more focus on gaming the system. As is always the case, a few folks hog all the money and awards, which causes the rest of the people to care less about stuff.”

“It's about time someone took a look at NSPS and recognized it was an abomination,” wrote an anonymous reader. “Even though I, as a supervisor, did okay under its provisions, it was rife with abuses, and looked like a return to the dark days of the 'good old boy' practices it was supposed to eliminate.”

However, other readers were sorry to hear that they would be going back to the General Service pay system, in which the link between pay and performance is tenuous at best.

“Most of us are not part of the union and going back to GS will only hurt us,” Paul wrote. “I've never been a fan of NSPS as it is but at least it gave us the ability to increase our salaries commensurate with the corporate world. Now, I'll likely be stuck at my current level for the next 5 years with only cost-of-living increases and max out soon after. I can't go further in grade without going into a completely different job. I guess whining and complaining really does make a difference.”

The main problem, according to many readers, is that federal managers did not know how to work with the system -- or simply weren’t interested in doing so.

“The NSPS was just another way for management to reward those who ‘cooperate and are liked,’ as [opposed] to those who perform their duties,” one reader suggested. “NSPS would have made it much easier to demoralize and harass employees not in the boss's inner circle.”

But others believe the problem is more systemic. Federal managers cannot link pay to performance, because their personnel budget simply does not allow it. A manager might have 15 employees doing excellent work, but only have enough money to pay five of those employees at the appropriate level.

“This year supervisors are told they cannot rate higher than 3, and they're discouraged from any rating higher than a 2,” one reader reported. “Whereas my supervisor and most in our organization are aware that I've made a significant contribution this year and have gone beyond what was expected of me, they will likely be forced to give me a 2 rating to save money. They are not even allowed to give me a rating until pay pools meet and review funding. I'd prefer that my performance be rated honestly, even if the increase in salary is not what it should be under the circumstances.”

Here is a sampling of other comments we received. You can read all the comments in full here.

* NSPS’ pay-for-performance is one of the few incentives for federal employees to improve themselves and their productivity. Generally, unions make sense to me, particularly in the less-regulated private sector. But don't let union partisans hype any perceived abuses out of proportion. And don't let federal managers tell you all is just fine -- it isn't, but it's fixable and still better than automatic step increases.

-- MS

* While many have expressed frustration over NSPS because ratings have been normalized in comparison to the legacy evaluation systems (where over 90 percent consistently received the highest possible rating), the reality is that most covered employees benefited from NSPS. Last year’s average NSPS increase was almost double the GS system. Granted in a population of 200,000-plus, you’ll find exceptions; however, many NSPS employees have exceeded the maximum pay associated with their original GS grade.

-- HR Insider

* I wanna work where HR insider works, where "over 90 percent consistently received the highest possible rating." In my almost 30 years, most of my coworkers were superior performers, but the managers only had a fixed number of "9s" to give out, and we had to take turns getting the highest ratings. The flaw with NSPS was an assumption that the government was filled with deadbeats, but in reality, the center line of the bell curve is skewed to the right, with very few poor performers. We're not in it just for the money, but for the privilege of serving our country.

-- Old Guy

* Once again, unions will protect people that demand protection because they are either incapable or unwilling to do their job well. In any other scenario, pay for performance would be a big plus.

-- Steve

* Other than the extra documentation, I was treated well by NSPS, but then I also took on extra duties. On the other hand, the senior management for our directorate this year has stated that the GS system would be enforced, no pay increases if your pay would go over your "GS equivalent," so we might as well go back to the "Show up, sleep and get promoted" GS system.

-- RayW

* NSPS was not the answer to the problem of pay and performance. Under NSPS the measures were not equal. Measures were tailored to the individual employee. Consequently, one employee would need to produce results with 95 percent accuracy to meet satisfactory performance and receive equal pay increases, while another only needed 70 percent. The top performers could see the inequity in that and began an exodus to friendly environments.

--Anonymous

I am on this system and it really is overly time consuming. I spent two days just getting it written up. Government does need a better performance rating system, but this is not it. I will be happy to return to the GS pay scale.

-- Ed

Posted on Oct 09, 2009 at 9:03 AM


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