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Working for the federal government comes with many challenges, from the evolving roles and responsibilities each worker takes on, to the heated political environment that’s always on the attack. In spite of this, agency workforces are a resilient bunch – as the 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey revealed, more than 90 percent of agency employees continue to be willing to put in extra effort, are constantly looking for ways to do their job better, and feel their work is important.

It is unfortunate that the public is rarely informed of all the good work that employees are doing, as the spotlight instead shines on agencies’ biggest challenges and controversies, ranging from program failures to high-profile personnel matters. For example, in its coverage of the Veterans Affairs scandal, the Army Times reported how “All Veterans Affairs senior executives have received a performance rating of “successful” or better for four years running, despite scandals over benefits backlogs, medical appointment scheduling and rising suicide numbers,” noting that based on these positive reviews, no VA senior executive employee’s activities and/or performance was subject to additional scrutiny.

When we receive this kind of insight into the performance review process at federal agencies, it begs the question of how the government is evaluating their employees. Clearly, the most important aspects of job performance are being overlooked. Employee reviews should be designed to illuminate performance issues and points of failure, and then devise plans to put the employees (and the programs they were responsible for) back on the right track.

These results suggest that performance evaluations are not focusing on the right elements to ensure the highest levels of performance contributing to highly effective programs. Here are a few suggestions for how federal agencies can get on track with the employee review process.

Aligning to What’s Critical to the Mission

When employees receive high marks for areas such as “filling out weekly status reports in a timely manner”, “being respectful and courteous to colleagues” and “showing up for work on time”, that’s all fine and good. But how is this helping the agency’s mission? The roles, responsibilities and corresponding day-to-day activities for all levels of employees across all departments and programs within a federal agency must align to agency and mission requirements. From reducing costs to improving efficiencies, it must be clear how – and how well – the work of each individual is contributing to the bigger picture and serving agency constituents.  

Develop Meaningful Goals

When it comes to setting individual goals and objectives, employees and their managers should focus on agency missions and clearly link employees’ goals to these requirements. Employees should understand how the work that they do each day contributes to program success, and be able to measure the impact of their efforts. This not only helps the employee demonstrate how they are contributing and being successful in their roles, but also opens up the opportunity to identify areas for improvement should an issue or performance concerns arise. 

Provide Continuous, Meaningful Feedback

Evaluation is a consistent, ongoing process. Employee goals should not only be revisited at the formal annual performance review; similarly, feedback should be provided in an ongoing and constructive manner throughout the year. What is working, and what needs to be improved? Has the program or agency priority benefitted thanks to the employee’s efforts? Are there additional skills or competencies that are needed to improve the performance of the employee, and therefore, the agency?

While the VA case is an extreme example, it clearly illustrates that change is needed in how federal agency employees are evaluated. The importance of improving performance evaluations isn’t only to uncover where performance issues exist and need to be corrected – it also helps to identify the true agency superstars who are going above and beyond in their roles. When done well, performance evaluations are an incredibly useful tool to engage and inspire agency employees, and to keep them motivated to take on future mission challenges.

Photo: Creative Commons