GSA freezes hiring, suspends most SES bonuses

Tuesday - 7/17/2012, 5:29pm EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The General Services Administration's top-to-bottom review found major inconsistencies in how it gives bonuses to Senior Executive Service members.

And in the aftermath of the Western Regions Conference scandal, which showed the agency paid thousands of dollars in bonuses to employees under investigation, acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini took a major step to reign in the agency's performance award structure.

Tangherlini announced Tuesday he is cutting the number of SES performance awards by 85 percent in fiscal 2012 and 2013, and suspending all performance awards given out in the administrator's office for the rest of 2012.

Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator, GSA

He also has instituted a temporary hiring freeze until the organizational review is completed this fall.

"This review has uncovered clear deficiencies in the area of performance awards," he wrote in a blog post. "By our count, we currently have more than 15 different bonus structures; there are questions about the agency's high award rate, and questions about whether performance goals are set at a high enough level throughout the agency. I believe performance awards should be issued for exemplary service that goes above and beyond the basic, expected level of performance."

Tangherlini said GSA also will "eliminate the Awards Stores program, where employees had access to prizes like iPods and digital cameras. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. We are also going to undertake a comprehensive review of all our performance management and awards system, including individual and organizational performance awards. And we will work closely with the unions to fulfill our obligations."

Bonus freeze not new

All these were issues that came up in the aftermath of the conference scandal that became public in April, which caused the downfall of at least four senior officials, including then-Administrator Martha Johnson.

GSA's inspector general found the employees under investigation received more than $1 million in bonuses. In all, 84 employees received an average of about $13,000.

Sources say the freezing of bonuses actually started last year under Johnson for both SES and non-SES managers.

As a part of the agencywide review, Tangherlini is rethinking how the organization is structured. Therefore, until the review is completed, he said a temporary hiring freeze is necessary.

Tangherlini said Tuesday during an event sponsored by ACT-IAC and TechAmerica in McLean, Va., that he is considering all options in changing the way the agency is organized, including consolidating the chief information officer's offices for headquarters, the Public Building Service and the Federal Acquisition Service.

"The fact is we already have a common single organization that is supposed to deliver solutions to federal agencies, the problem is that over time we have created these redundant silos within the organization," he said. "I'm not saying that I have figured out yet, with the team, Congress, the White House, the industry, what that right structure is. These things are squarely on the table. We want to talk about it. If there are rumors about consolidating these within the organization, that means we are doing something right because are having the dialogue."

Tangherlini said it's his job to push the agency the hardest and think bigger for ways to deliver on its mission more effectively and efficiently.

"I'm challenging folks across the organization to find ways that we can look at how we set ourselves up in the most efficient way possible," he said. "I'll not put an end to the rumor, but I will not answer it definitively. I think we need to have these conversations and they will continue throughout the summer. I've promised the people I work for we will have some at least notional idea of where we are going this fall."

He added he hopes that this top-to-bottom review is the first of many that GSA continually goes through to improve on the way it meets its mission.

More GSA reform hearings on tap

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who has probed the agency's questionable spending, called the latest effort "only one small step to reform an agency that has spun out of control."

"It's common sense that GSA executives responsible for blowing hundreds of millions of the taxpayers' dollars on lavish conferences, trips to exotic locations and poorly monitored employee gift programs should not be rewarded with bonuses," Mica said in a statement. "The committee will conduct additional hearings on GSA, to review the agency's measures to clean up its act and to consider additional reforms."

Tangherlini told GSA employees of the hiring and bonus freezes early Monday evening.

Sources say the reaction among GSA employees was minimal. One source, who requested anonymity because they didn't receive approval to speak to the media, said employees almost expected these actions because of the conference scandal.

And it makes sense given the budget situation that performance awards would be severely limited and a hiring freeze would take effect. GSA already has offered two rounds of buyouts or early retirements, and a third round is very possible.

Tangherlini said before the announcement of the hiring and award freezes that the morale of GSA employees has taken a hit. But employees also see the aftermath of the scandal as an opportunity to improve.

"The 500 ideas and thousands of comments I got from folks is not from a group who is sitting and crying themselves to sleep at night. These are folks who are engaged, who are committed, who are interested, who are motivated and frankly excited," he said. "I think you would have to be an organization filled with something other than humans to not go through what we went through in the last couple of months and not feel bad about it. But I have to say I really admire the skill and quality of the GSA employees who are saying this is a huge opportunity for us to reprove our value, to show what we can do and to really change the way we really do our work."

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