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Performance Based Pay or Slip and Slide Rewards?


Both Manatee and Sarasota County Commissioners are looking at "performance based" compensation programs that reward department heads and other officials for a "job well done." Many department heads, senior administrative staff and commissioners are already rewarded with an annual salary package worth upwards of $100,000. Could officials be asking for a raise, a pat on the back, or both?

The first set of questions might ask: who picks the winners and what deems a "job well done"? How long do we wait after the job well done before bonuses are provided to the celebrated busy bees, and what happens when a project's success later turns sour? 

These are just some of the questions that burden a performance-based pay system and clearly, when performing in the capacity of a civil servant, it could be very difficult determining when the actual success of a project starts and stops. 

"If you want a happy ending, that depends of course on where you stop the story" - Orson Welles

This is the first action commissioners become acquainted with (know when to stop the story), because any long-term evaluation is sure to reflect unintended -- and possibly intended -- mistakes.

There are a variety of performance-based compensation models: merit pay plans; incentive compensation packages; team and group incentive programs. But any carrot-and-stick program to promote better performance from civil servants often undermines teamwork when a select few are the only ones rewarded. Favoritism can be hard to avoid.

Also, those in a position to game such systems can often bleed them dry at taxpayer expense. Recent VA fraud in handling their "wait list" victimized thousands of veterans, all so officials could play doctor with the books in order to reflect a better performance and qualify for bonuses. A report compiled by Project on Government Oversight, revealed high-ranking VA officials would perpetrate retaliation against employees who exposed problems within the system. Their study is based on more than 800 VA employee complaints.

When a bonus is given for a job well done, and later is seen as a disaster, who loses their job? When is the errant bonus returned. Too often, the answers to those questions are no one and never.

I wonder, when the Ward-9 section of the levy broke on the outskirts of New Orleans soon after hurricane Katrina hit southern Louisiana, could the engineers who designed and built that portion of the levy have been rewarded a bonus for a job well done because that portion of the project came in under budget.?  One could easily understand giving a bonus to a project director who saves a million or two in costs for the boss. But unfortunately, the story didn't stop there.

Years after the completion of that portion of the levy was finished, years after the purchase of rock that was one-quarter the size of the rock prescribed to properly build a water wall of that proportion, there was a breach. The discounted hundred pound rocks freighted to Louisiana from Illinois were not of the prime 500 lb. boulders the design called for to secure the levy under dreadful conditions. The rest is history.

At parts of that story, the job well done moniker may have seemed appropriate; at others, laughable. This illustrates the challenges of such reward systems and the negative outcomes they can often incentivize, and It is not as if Manatee County officials don't already have a credibility problem. Developers enjoy cozy relationships with many of the departments who could potentially stand in the way of profitable approvals.

A little while back, Building Department Director John Barnott, during a planner/engineer workshop, announced that there was $50,000 in bonuses available for those departments that efficiently expedited applications, which already seems like the emphasis is on getting things done for developers rather than making the best and most deliberate decision for taxpayers. How could incentive pay not seem like another tool to help emphasize such priorities?

Commissioners Benac and Bustle have both flirted with proposing a Performance Pay program, and Whitmore, Chappie and Baugh have expressed some favor for it. Should the commission motion to adopt a performance program, residents might request a complete evaluation of the pro and cons. 

It might help if each year commissioners qualify and quantify their cost to the county, to show what kind of bang for the buck residents are getting from them. I am sure developers are quite happy with the commissioners' performance, sitting behind their mountain of special approvals and what could end up being a record year in permits. Yet, hearing from the number of citizen watchdogs who show up and comment at public meetings, there is a disconnect as to what quantifies a job well done.


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