WASHINGTON -- When federal bureaucrats are graded by their bosses, A's come easy. Only 1 in 500 flunks. More than 80 percent earn above-average grades.
And bureaucrats seem to be getting better all the time. Fifteen years ago, barely 1 in 100 of the top 150,000 managers earned an outstanding job rating. Last year, 3 in 10 earned it, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
"It could be that the quality of work has improved," says OPM analyst Effie Siegel. "Clearly, that is a possibility."
More common is the view of Donald J. Devine, a Ronald Reagan-era OPM director. He says the federal performance rating system has become so corrupt and inflated that it's "immoral."
Intended to reward the very best bureaucrats with merit raises and bonuses and facilitate the ouster of the worst, the system of annual reviews now does neither, according to both raters and the rated.
Instead, they say, it's become a costly, time-consuming ritual that weeds out few and provides only meager rewards to the finest. It also"makes lots of good people feel rotten," says Helene Benson, head of the Professional Management Association in Washington.
A recent poll of federal managers who belong to the PMA found that 85 percent believed annual evaluations had no effect -- or had negative effects -- on their willingness to work hard.
A General Accounting Office study last summer said: "Nearly everyone we spoke with said they believed that performance was not a major factor in determining who received performance awards."
That's not what President Jimmy Carter had in mind when he linked future pay raises to a new performance rating system as part of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
Bonuses of up to 20 percent of salary, performance-based raises and accelerated promotions for the best managers were the carrots in this rating system.
The bonuses and other benefits were to be withheld from below-average performers. "Those who fail will be removed from the corps," pledged Alan K. Campbell, Mr. Carter's OPM director.
The tough talk went over well with anti-Washington voters who had helped elect Mr. Carter. But the so-called pay-for-performance plan was crippled in important ways.
First, unions and members of Congress from bureaucrat-heavy districts around Washington scotched plans to limit the percentages of managers allowed to fall into each rating category.
The reform act pruned back tangled civil service procedures to make it easier to fire incompetent workers, but more recent anti-discrimination and due-process rules have combined to make dumping bad workers extremely difficult.
"Today, before you take action against someone, you've got to very clearly document their errors against clear standards for a period of at least three months," a government personnel official said recently, trading candor for his anonymity.
"Then you've got to give them every opportunity to improve. That's another three months, minimum.
"If they're a protected minority, you've got to worry about an [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] investigation," he continued. "They average 18 months.
"If they're gay or claim to be whistle-blowers or say you've created an adversarial work atmosphere or claim an alcoholic or drug-related handicap, it can take a lot longer."