Is the federal personnel system ‘viable’?

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The government’s primary personnel system is approaching age 65.

Is it too old to get the job done?

The House federal workforce subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday morning to ask the question this way:  “Is the Federal Government’s General Schedule (GS) a Viable Personnel System for the Future?”

The answer is not a simple yes or no, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

In a report scheduled for release at the hearing, GAO said it identified “eight key attributes of a modern, effective [personnel] classification system,” including transparency, adaptability, flexibility and simplicity. GAO found the General Schedule (GS) system, which covers more than 70 percent of the federal civilian workforce, “reflects some of the eight attributes, but falls short of achieving them in implementation.”

These findings constitute a ringing endorsement of the current pay system.

— J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees

GAO said personnel management “continues to be a pervasive challenge that needs to be addressed.” The report warns that “serious human capital shortfalls can erode the capacity of federal agencies and threaten their ability to cost-effectively carry out their missions.”

Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) left no doubt about his answer to the hearing’s central question in the opening statement he prepared for delivery.

“More than 99 percent of General Schedule workers are given a three percent raise based primarily on the passage of time,” he said. “It’s hard to see the fairness in the current system and bureaucratic culture it fosters that allows workers who simply show up and stick around for years to get raises when those who try go above and beyond serving taxpayers and good job doesn’t reward them over the poor performers.”

Farenthold directly linked the “antiquated system” to “an inefficient and unaccountable federal government.”

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, defended current pay classification systems. In testimony submitted to the subcommittee, he cited Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data that, among other things, indicate salaries of women in the Senior Executive Service, which is not a GS component,  are 99.2 percent  of their male counterparts.

“These findings constitute a ringing endorsement of the current pay system, a system that assigns salaries to the position, not the individual,” Cox said.

That same OPM report, however, noted that “females made up only 33 percent of SES members” in 2012.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, listed federal workforce pay freezes, furloughs and benefit cuts in his prepared opening statement before saying, “I don’t know that Congress has a lot of credibility with federal workers.”

“As we consider issues that affect our dedicated federal workforce, including the effectiveness of the General Schedule pay system, we must bear in mind the critical services that federal workers provide to American citizens on a daily basis,” he added.

Read more in the Federal Diary online this evening and in tomorrow’s print editions of The Washington Post. 


Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.



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