Report Confirms Ratings Disparity at GAO

Posted May 2, 2008 at 5:32pm

The Government Accountability Office’s culture needs to change in order to allow more opportunities for black employees, according to a recent study.

In an environment where “unwritten rules” help determine how far an analyst can climb the ladder, black employees sometimes are unclear about those expectations, the study says.

A cultural shift is just one of the recommendations made by The Ivy Group, a Virginia-based consulting firm the GAO hired to investigate the gap between black and white employees’ performance ratings.

The ratings differential has persisted for years, with black employees receiving, on average, lower ratings than their white counterparts. The report confirms the disparity and offers more than 25 ideas on how to fix it.

Acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said in a press release that he plans to implement some of the recommendations immediately — including a “full systematic and inclusive review” of the ratings system.

“GAO strives to be a model agency and has been committed to a diverse workforce that represents the multi-cultural strengths of America,” Dodaro said in the release. “While we have made progress toward this goal, Ivy’s report shows we still have work to do.”

The Ivy Group found that favoritism made it difficult for an analyst to catch up once behind. With a large workload, supervisors were likely to automatically pick the analysts they knew, rather than give others an opportunity. Furthermore, it found that feedback is limited and uneven across the agency.

Analysts’ reactions to Ivy’s findings were mixed. While the report justifies much of what employees have alleged — mainly, that the performance rating system needs work — some said The Ivy Group also skirted issues of prejudice.

One section includes the statement: “The causes for ratings disparities are not clear.” But a few pages later, in a section labeled “Significance of Race,” the report broadly states: “People may be unable to see talent when it arrives in a different package.”

The report sometimes focuses on perceptions, rather than stating facts.

For example, it says that white analysts “fully understand the need to specialize and market themselves” to get assignments, while some black analysts “feel excluded from the career benefits of the informal system.” The report characterizes that informal system as the “GAO way.”

One black senior analyst said the report simply repeated already-known facts without pinpointing the underlying reason.

“The idea of prejudice just never comes up,” the analyst said. “So where do we go from here?”

But several analysts also said they have faith in Dodaro — a longtime GAO employee who took over almost two months ago when Comptroller General David Walker left for the private sector. Walker was a controversial figure; he tied pay raises to the performance rating system, a move that angered many analysts and helped jump-start unionization at the agency.

Dodaro hasn’t wasted any time in moving on analysts’ complaints of the rating system. Before the report was released last week, he announced his intention to include employees in a review of the system.

Now, based on Ivy’s recommendations, he plans to introduce organization-wide diversity training. And by September, agency officials hope to have an “action plan” on how to handle the long-term recommendations from the study.