VA gears up to standardize ratings for exceptional employees

Thursday - 10/18/2012, 5:10am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The Department of Veterans Affairs' National Cemetery Administration is trying to clarify what it means to be an exceptional performing employee.

Never before has the NCA defined and standardized employee performance above the basic "meeting expectations" level.

But at one of the administration's regions some employees will help figure it out through a pilot program under a labor-management forum. NCA is using the Goals, Engagement, Accountability and Results (GEAR) approach to change how supervisors and employees work together and appraise performance.

"Our goal is to enhance organizational performance by engaging our employees," said Veronica Wales, who leads the labor management relations effort for the Veterans Benefits Administration. "We're attempting to do that first by focusing on performance plans, aligning them with organizational performance and strategic plans, communicating with employees in such a way that they have a clear understanding of the importance of their role and the contribution they make to organizational success, providing the supervisors with tools, training and information so that these two individuals — employees and supervisors — can work as a team to enhance the performance of the organization."

The National Cemetery Administration's southeast region, which includes Puerto Rico, Arkansas and North Carolina, will begin testing this approach Nov. 1.

VA becomes the fourth agency to kick off a pilot using GEAR. The Coast Guard will become the fifth pilot program in April.

Focus on three jobs at NCA

The National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations launched the GEAR approach in November 2011 with a goal of increasing by at least 5 percent the results oriented culture at five agencies — VA, Coast Guard, the Office of Personnel Management and the departments of Energy and Housing and Urban Development.

HUD, OPM and Energy launched their GEAR programs earlier this year.

The VA and Coast Guard presented the plans for their GEAR pilots Wednesday at the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations meeting in Washington.

The National Cemetery Administration is focusing on three specific job functions in its pilot — cemetery representatives, cemetery caretakers and equipment operators. Wales said VA chose these three jobs because they play a key role in making sure the cemetery is well-maintained. These three positions represent about 66 percent of all positions in the 36 regional cemeteries, and most are in General Schedule 5-6-7 levels.

The idea to define and standardize what exceptional performance came, in part, from the employee unions.

"We've decided a lot of times employees always know in their performance plans what it takes to fail or just to meet the performance criteria," said Mark Bailey, the local president of the Service Employees International Union and the National Association of Government Employees, which represents the employees taking part in the pilot. "We wanted to expand on this so employees understand what it takes to be outstanding in their field of work."

He added if they know what it means to achieve an excellent rating, they will work toward it, and ask for the training and opportunity to reach those goals.

Wales said part of the GEAR pilot will encourage employees to discuss the skills they have that the agency isn't taking advantage of, or the capabilities the employee wants to develop that would benefit the agency.

Bailey added SEIU/NAGE hopes this pilot will reduce the number of grievances and give employees a clearer view of what their future may hold.

The VA is helping employees and supervisors prepare for the launch by providing a template for self assessments that were customized by position and offering 12 online training courses around performance management.

Coast Guard pilot to begin in April

The Coast Guard is a little behind the other four agencies in how it is using GEAR.

It plans to launch at least one pilot if not more by April, said Curt Odom, the service's director of personnel management.

He said the focus is on engagement between employees and supervisors.

The Coast Guard will implement a test case at a base in Boston that has a combination of wage grade employees and GS employees. Odom said about 50 supervisors and 200 civilian employees are taking part.

Demetrios Stroubakis, the president of the Coast Guard's American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) council, said at first the union wasn't excited about the pilot. He said the union felt the service was dictating the pilot instead of working together on what makes the most sense.

But a few short months later, Stroubakis said that all changed as the Coast Guard management did more to bring labor in to the decision making process around the pilot. When it was time to pick the pilot base, 20 bases showed interest, and three or four were seriously considered.