New SES appraisal system meant to align agencies

Friday - 1/6/2012, 2:57pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The White House has announced a new system for evaluating the performance of Senior Executive Service members. And those who receive failing scores could be on their way out.

The system should establish greater consistency among agencies, according to a memo by Office of Management and Budget Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients and the Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.

"Agencies will be able to rely upon a more consistent and uniform framework to communicate expectations and evaluate the performance of SES members," the memo said.

The Washington Post first reported the new SES appraisal system.

The 13-page evaluation form requires supervisors to annually appraise executives on a scale of one to five, with one being unsatisfactory and five being outstanding. The system calls for evaluating SES members based on their abilities to lead change, manage people, build coalitions, use business acumen to accomplish the organization's mission and achieve results.

Setting the bar high

"One intelligent piece of this design is that it specifies the executive core qualifications as performance standards," said Senior Executives Association President Carol Bonosaro.

On the other hand, she said, it sets the bar pretty high.

"The 'outstanding' rating is pretty tough. It's almost a walk-on-water standard but not quite," she said.

SES members who receive a rating of one, or "unsatisfactory" would be reassigned, transferred or removed from the SES. Those who receive the next lowest rating of two, or "minimally satisfactory," twice in three years could also be asked to leave.

The last element, called "Results Driven," in the form, places emphasis on measurable outcomes that are "clearly aligned to organizational goals and objectives." Performance on this element should represent at least 20 percent of the SES member's final rating. The document details what the SESer would have to do to earn top scores in that category.

More standardized approach

"This provides a balance but it still puts the focus on achieving results, which I think is what the American people want from their government," said former Department of Homeland Security Chief Human Capital Officer Jeff Neal, now a senior vice president at ICF International.

Agencies have lacked a standardized approach to evaluating SES members' job performance, making it hard for SES members to move from agency-to-agency throughout their career. That was the intention of the 1978 law that established the SES.

"This is subtle, but a very powerful step that Director Berry has taken," said Booz Allen Hamilton Senior Executive Advisor Ron Sanders, a former federal human capital official. "I don't think he's exaggerating when he says that this will help realize the original vision of the Senior Executive Service."

Research indicates that less than one percent of SES members move between agencies, with the inconsistency among evaluation systems being a major roadblock, he said.

"You're not about to pull up stakes and go from one agency to another and then come under a completely different performance appraisal system — different labels, different levels, different standards, different everything — and then throw your future promotion chances or opportunities for performance awards at risk because of that inconsistency," he said.

Wait-and-see reception

Senior executives have been lukewarm about the new system, however. Bonosaro described their reaction as "Let's wait and see what this really means."

"No matter what the system is, no matter how good it is, the issue at hand is, 'How will it be implemented?'" she said.

Interagency workgroups are developing strategies for implementation, according to the memo.

The move should save agencies money by allowing them to share systems and best practices, OPM Deputy Associate Director for Executive Resources and Employee Development Steve Shih told Federal News Radio in August. It would also allow OPM to streamline its certification approval system for SES members.

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