Pentagon’s New Performance Rating System

The new pay system for Defense Department employees that goes into effect early next year will come with a new performance rating system as well.

Pentagon’s Pay System Will Use New Terms to Rate Performance (WaPo, B2)

“Fully successful” is out; “valued performance” is in. “Outstanding” is gone; “role model” is tops. The terminology for job performance ratings is about to change at the Defense Department, perhaps as early as February, according to documents released by officials in charge of the new National Security Personnel System.

NSPS, about two years in the making, plans to jettison the 15-grade General Schedule pay system and replace it with broad salary ranges, known as “pay bands,” and to link pay raises more rigorously to performance. In the five-level NSPS rating system, more than 700,000 Defense civil service employees will have to be rated at least “fair” to receive an annual raise in their pay band or a locality pay adjustment. Defense civilians will have to show “valued performance” to get an additional performance-based raise or bonus. Pay raises, in other words, will not be as predictable as they have been under the decades-old GS system, which Bush administration officials contend gives too much weight to length of service rather than job performance.

The government has promoted the idea of merit raises and promotions since 1883, when Congress passed the Pendleton Act, the first major step toward a career civil service, after a disappointed job seeker in 1881 assassinated President James A. Garfield.

In recent years, employees have been rated according to performance levels (five or three rungs, typically) or by pass-fail systems (used by the Navy, the Air Force and others). Five-level systems typically rank employees as “outstanding,” “exceeds fully successful,” “fully successful,” “minimally successful” or “unacceptable/unsatisfactory.”

In designing NSPS, the Pentagon apparently decided to get rid of the old terminology, which has come in for its share of criticism and ridicule in recent years. Last year, the Merit Systems Protection Board said rating patterns showed that fewer than 1 percent of federal employees fell below the “fully successful” level. More than 40 percent were rated outstanding, the board said.

Without some sort of quota system to prevent ratings inflation, changing the names will be meaningless. By tying it directly to pay, the new ratings system itself will likely be a quota system of sorts, since managers won’t be able to give everybody a raise.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    And of course a quota system will lead to the boss playing favorites and rewarding the sycophants and apple polishers. Whoda thunk that?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Could well be. Indeed, that’s the tradeoff. A civil service system makes cronyism less likely but makes it harder to reward the truly outstanding and punish all but the most flagrant slackers. A manager-centric system has the reverse issues.

  3. DC Loser says:

    James, I’ve been in the Civil Service going on a decade and frankly 99% of us aren’t here for the money (at least the ones I’m familiar with here in the DC area). Most of us could make more money working for the beltway bandits but we truly enjoy working for the government and have an impact on policy and national security. That said, I’ve seen good workers rewarded pretty consistently. The good bosses know who they are and they will make sure their good workers are properly recognized so they won’t jump ship to another organization for a promotion.

  4. Tim says:

    As a civil servant for almost 10 years, after serving 20 years in the military, I’m more than ready for a performance based pay-banding system. The GS system is broken. It no longer works. As a hard-worker with a reputation as a “go to” guy who sometimes has to rub bureaucrats the wrong way to get the mission done, I’d much rather be judged by my direct superiors than by promotion panels that spend too much time looking for people who’ve filled in all the “right blocks” on somebody’s list and which might consist of some of those bureaucrats I occasionally had to push out of the way in the fulfillment of my duties.