How OPM Cut the Paper Out of the Performance Review Process

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So far, the USA Performance app tracks more than 35,000 federal employees—a number expected to more than double in 2020.

USA Performance—an in-house app created by two teams in the Office of Personnel Management—is set to grow by more than 117% in 2020 as adoption of the digital performance review system spreads across government.

Up until seven years ago, OPM would intake reams of paper every year on every federal employee as part of the annual performance review system. In 2012, the agency began a long digitization process that has coalesced into a comprehensive system that is based on a single code base while also being highly customizable for the agencies that use it.

As of October, 35 agencies and offices have signed on as customers of the USA Performance app, creating an end-to-end digital performance review system for some 35,000 federal employees. Soon, that number is expected to more than double, as the program is expecting to add another 41,000 users in 2020, officials told Nextgov.

But developing a single system that could be used by every federal agency was no easy task.

“It’s complex,” said M.C. Price, associate chief information officer for infrastructure and a senior leader managing technical development, hosting and maintenance of OPM’s websites, including USA Performance. “It was very complex to digitize it and to meet all the agency requirements on the different forms. Even within our group, we wanted to weight the performance standards differently than maybe the [Human Resources Solutions office] does. It has to be configurable and meet all those demands.”

In 2012, Price and Rebecca Ayers, manager of OPM’s performance management solutions area and the USA Performance program manager, set out to digitize the process. Over the course of seven years, Ayers, Price and their teams worked together to build an entire human resources system from scratch, developing the entire platform and software in-house and running it completely on OPM infrastructure.

The result: a fully self-contained, customizable performance management system that has the potential to save the government millions annually in work hours and printing costs, alone.

The review is a year-long endeavor that starts with a conversation about goals for the coming year. Managers meet with employees again for a mid-year review and then once more at the end of the year, at which time they get a performance rating. In the traditional process, the entire review is cataloged on paper forms—stacks and stacks, generated year over year. At the end of the annual review process, those stacks are mailed to third-party vendors that scan the forms into non-machine-readable PDFs that are then delivered to OPM for storage.

“They will literally mail them boxes of PDFs and the vendors will scan them—and the agencies are paying the vendors—and then those get scanned into our [Electronic Official Personnel Folder],” known as the eOPF, Price said.

Those paper records also require additional identification to ensure each page is associated with the correct employee. That requires adding a sticker to each page with the employee’s Social Security number—a privacy nightmare if those records were ever misplaced. The USA Performance platform removes the need to include paper in the process and maintains the records in a secure database with an authority to operate, or ATO, a federal certification that ensures a baseline of cybersecurity.

“That’s what the system does,” Ayers said. “It takes that traditionally paper-driven process that we’ve done in the government, which is, ‘I’m going to meet with you, sit down, talk about what you’re going to do this year. We’ll meet again at the end of the year and I’m going to give you a performance rating and a write-up. Then that goes in your personal record.”

Under the old process, those ratings and write-ups were printed out and mailed to OPM, at which point the agency would scan all of those in non-machine-readable PDFs.

That process has been in place since the government began doing performance reviews. The last major revision to the process was in 1995, Ayers said.

Since then, “I don’t know if agencies were doing anything automated within the HR process other than maybe some payroll or other things,” she said. “In the last 25 years, slowly all these different HR processes are starting to get digitized and automated. I think performance management because it was something you could file on paper, put on a form and file somewhere, I think it’s been one of the last that we’ve attempted to try to digitize across the government.”

In order to get moving without having to immediately delve into the complexities of the federal employee review system, Ayers said the team decided to start with the Senior Executive Service, a subset of the federal workforce who fill executive management positions throughout government. Not only are there fewer of them—only 8,000 of the 2.1 million federal employees—but their annual review process is highly standardized, especially when compared with the wide variety of options for the remaining 1.3 million feds.

From there, the team started the arduous process of creating a platform that could handle every other kind of performance review.

“Within the federal regulation, our summary rating patterns go from A to H—A being pass/fail all the way to H, which is five-tier,” Ayers said. “And then, within that, there are different derivation formulas that you can use—pass/fail, whether you do mean or you do weighted, whether you just pick and choose. There’s, like, 150 ways to do performance management in government. You go from agency to agency, everybody does it a little different.”

The SES portion of the system was completed by 2015, at which time the team began work on a Performance Plan Wizard that walks new users (managers) through the platform and allows them to customize the performance review process based on the agency’s preferred method.

The wizard functionality was key to making USA Performance usable for anyone outside the SES.

“Think of it like TurboTax,” Ayers said, “Where it takes the HR specialist through a series of steps that says, ‘What’s your summary of rating pattern? What’s your derivation formula? How many performance elements do you use? What’s the order of signatures on the plan? How many progress reviews do you have? Do you require self-accomplishment narratives? Do you require them at the individual level; do you require them at the summary level?’ They take you all the way through and it rebuilds your plan in the system. Then, once you have this template, you can assign it to those employees.”

Non-SES employees were being reviewed in the system by 2017 and the next year a host of agencies adopted the platform, including USA Performance’s biggest customer to date, the Homeland Security Department. By 2018, the system was able to process multiple, customized plans and rating cycles for each employee and customer agency.

In 2019, a swath of larger departments joined the program, including Health and Human Services, Justice, Census and the General Services Administration.

Ayers and Price were not able to provide hard numbers on savings due to the program but offered some stats to give an idea of how the process has changed. Using the paper process, agencies would spend some 320 work hours a year processing paper documents—with an average of four human resources specialists working for about 7.5 days for a total of 240 hours, another specialist spending 40 hours maintaining spreadsheets and paper plans, and an HR supervisor spending 40 hours over five days monitoring the process.

The team also estimates each agency goes through an average of 100 trees each year using the paper process.

On top of workforce and environmental costs, an agency would spend an estimated $25,000 on vendor services to process and scan all that paper into PDF form.

Agencies using the USA Performance system pay by the seat, depending on how many employees they review through the platform.

“So, we had to solve the problem of: Everybody does it a little bit differently, we have to follow OPM rules and we’ve got to build it in a cost-effective way so that agencies—whether you have 10 people or, like [the Defense Department], you have 90,000 people—you can afford this system,” Ayers said.

However, despite seven years of work, the system still does not fully adapt to all the intricacies of federal employment. But the teams are still working at it.

“The next big steps for the system are we’re going to tackle—which I don’t think another system has done yet—is organizational structure. Federal agencies are very complex,” Ayers said. “You have all these layers and [employees and managers] sit in different parts of the organization. I think we’re going to be one of the first—at least federally-built systems—that tries to tackle how can we better manage an organization’s structure so that we can just better manage the performance management process.”

“The other piece is always data analytics,” she added. “We spent our time building this system and now we have a bunch of data. So, how can we better access and better utilize that data.”

And that goes both ways, she noted, as managers get better data about their workforce and OPM gathers useful data on the workforce and its review processes.

Further into the future, Ayers said she believes USA Performance could be used to fundamentally change the way federal employee performance is tracked and rated.

“We’ve been able to recreate the [code of federal regulations]—the government policy. What we want to do is take the next step into adopting what we’re seeing outside of government and how we understand how to manage performance. But we’ve got to figure out how those people and those networks relate in order to build the foundation and the tools.”

Someday soon, that might be having an app on employees’ work phones that allow them to give immediate feedback on their colleagues and, when constructive, allow that to be shared more widely with other managers.