- Patent Examiner Goals Have Not Changed Since 1976 to Better Reflect Efficiencies inWork Processes and Improved Technology
Overall, we found that examiner production goals have not been re-evaluated to reflect efficiencies in work processes and improved technology. Our review of fiscal year 1999-2003 production statistics reported by seven of PTOâ€™s eight patent technology centers revealed that all seven processed applications in less time than allotted. Most current examiner production goals, which were developed in 1976, may be too easily obtainable because approximately 95 percent of the art units processed applications in less time than their allotted goals. According to PTO statistics, patent quality is improving and patent complexity is only gradually increasing. We were told by examiners that they could do more work, but that there is no additional incentive.
- Patent Examiner Performance Appraisal Plans Are Not Linked to Supervisor and PTO Goals
PTO and supervisory patent examiners are provided with specific production goals and the annual pendency goals as outlined in the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999. However, we found that examiner appraisal plans do not link individual performance to agency goals for reducing time to complete "first actions" and overall pendency. As a result, examiners explained to us that they can set their personal annual production goals according to the awards they want to receive rather than establishing those goals in a fashion that better supports theachievement of PTOâ€™s goals. Conversely, PTO recently aligned its trademark goals with examiner goals by revising the GS-13 and GS-14 trademark attorney performance appraisal plans. Hence, we believe that PTO should consider revising its patent performance appraisal plans to link them to agency production, first action and overall pendency goals, as well as measures of examinerâ€™s success at processing applications within specified time periods.
- Patent Examiner Award System Is Not Well Structured
PTO offers examiners three incentive awardsâ€”gain-sharing, special achievement, and the pendency reduction awardâ€”which are tied to examinersâ€™ production or workflow management. We found
(1) the gain-sharing award offers little, if any, incentive to produce more than 110 percent of their assigned production goalâ€”the minimum production level needed to qualify for a gain-sharing or special achievement award;
2) the special achievement award requires that examiners only achieve the same 110 percent average as the gain-sharing award, but over four consecutive quarters, rather than over the fiscal year; and
(3) relatively few examiners have qualified for the pendency reduction award. Therefore, we recommend that PTO evaluate the current awards system and criteria, to determine if there is a more effective and efficient way to stimulate higher examiner production.
The report goes on to conclude that the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office should ensure that the following actions are taken, recognizing that implementation, as appropriate, is subject to negotiation with PTOâ€™s unions:
- Reevaluate current patent examiner goals and assess the merits of revising them to reflect efficiencies in and changes to work processes resulting from automation and other enhancements.
- Examine the benefits of revising patent examiner performance plans to (a) better reflect agency production, first action and overall pendency goals, and (b) better measure examiner success at processing applications within specified time periods.
- Evaluate the current patent examiner award system to determine if there is a more effective and efficient way to stimulate higher examiner production.
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