The Federal Government Says 99% of Its Workers Are Doing a Great Job
Policy + Politics

The Federal Government Says 99% of Its Workers Are Doing a Great Job

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Just how good are government workers at their jobs? The answer depends on who you ask.

Despite all those reports you’ve read of government incompetence, mismanagement or worse, just about all working-level federal government employees get stellar performance ratings, the Government Accountability Office reported this week.

The GAO found that, in 2013, nearly all working-level federal employees — 99.3 percent — get performance ratings of “fully successful” or better. Just 0.1 percent of federal workers had their performance rated as “unacceptable.”

“I’m constantly impressed by the feds I encounter, but it strains credulity to imagine that 99 percent of all federal employees are above average or that more than two-thirds are in the top rank,” said Donald Kettl, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. “This is one more sign of the profound breakdown of the federal government’s talent management system.”

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The universally high ratings are also in stark contrast to the public’s perception of the federal government. A Pew Research Center report last year on how Americans view the government found — no surprise — high levels of anger and frustration. The resentment went beyond complaints about Congress, the White House or D.C. gridlock.

“The public’s overall rating of the government’s performance also has become more negative,” Pew found. “Most Americans now say the federal government is doing either an only fair (44 percent) or poor (33 percent) job running its programs; just 20 percent give it an excellent or good rating on this measure.”

Although the government uses several different employee rating systems, most federal workers are assessed on a five-point scale, with “outstanding,” “exceeds fully successful” and “fully successful” as positive marks and “minimally successful” and “unacceptable” at the bottom end of the scale. The GAO study looked at the performance ratings of 1 million non-senior executive employees in the federal government.

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The ratings of senior executives, who lead federal agencies and programs, were not part of the report. However, the GAO reported that in 2013, just 0.1 percent of federal senior executives received unsatisfactory (level 1) ratings. By contrast, 45.3 percent received “outstanding” (level 5) and 44.1 percent got “commendable” (level 4) ratings, and 0.2 percent got minimally satisfactory (level 2) ratings. 

The new GAO report highlights rating inflation, noting that agencies need to change the way they interpret the categories. “A cultural shift might be needed among agencies and employees to acknowledge that ‘fully successful’ is a high bar and should be valued and rewarded and that ‘outstanding’ is a difficult level to achieve,” the GAO concluded.

Making that cultural shift could be difficult for a number of reasons. Dick Grote, a Dallas-based performance management consultant and author, said managers have little incentive to be honest in federal government performance appraisals because firing employees is almost impossible and underperforming employees cannot easily be punished. “Assume you’re a manager. If you give high ratings they’ll smile and be cheerful and if you give them low ratings they’ll gripe or they’ll whine,” he said.

Financial considerations also play a role. In the federal government, bonuses are linked to performance evaluations, but the extent to which ratings are used for bonuses depends on each agency’s own rules and the employee’s level.

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The majority of working-level employees (otherwise known as general schedule workers) are eligible to receive three types of pay increases that are linked “to some degree” to performance ratings. Performance ratings are also used to inform promotion and staffing decisions.

“When most employees are clustered in the top two ratings categories, it’s difficult to use ratings to inform awards and recognition decisions, and the whole performance management process loses transparency and credibility,” GAO spokesman Chuck Young wrote in an email to The Fiscal Times.

Performance evaluations have been a problem in the private sector as well, and in recent years, Deloitte, Adobe and Accenture dumped traditional performance reviews after deeming them of little real value. Still, Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, points to a key difference in the use of performance reviews in the public and private sectors.

“I’m confident private employer performance ratings should show a similar distribution of ratings” as the federal system does, Biggs said. “They simply would be labeled differently and the poor performers would be much more likely to be fired.”