Is the federal personnel system too old to do the job?

Joe Davidson
Columnist July 15

The government’s primary personnel system will be 65 years old in October.

Is it too old to get the job done?

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

A House federal workforce subcommittee hearing Tuesday asked the question this way: “Is the Federal Government’s General Schedule (GS) a Viable Personnel System for the Future?”

Most, including Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta, agreed the current system is ripe for examination.

The answer to the question, however, is not a simple yes or no. But when the question is before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which includes the workforce panel, don’t be surprised if the issue becomes sharp and partisan.

Majority Republicans dominated the questions at Tuesday’s hearing. They left no doubt they think the current system should be retired, if not shot like some would a lame horse.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the full committee, used his short appearance at the session to lament the “double layer”of civil service and union protections, which means “that, in fact, we fire or demote or eliminate less underperformers and outright bad workers than you would if you had only one, but not both of those systems in place.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), directly linked the “antiquated system” to “an inefficient and unaccountable federal government.”

“More than 99 percent of General Schedule workers are given a 3 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,” while not rewarding outstanding employees.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office is much more nuanced, technical and desert dry. Personnel issues, or what GAO calls “strategic human capital management,” have been on GAO’s high-risk list since 2001. The matter is high risk because “critical skills gaps” in the government “can erode the capacity of federal agencies and threaten their ability to cost-effectively carry out their missions.”

Robert Goldenkoff, GAO’s director of strategic issues, offered another question that framed much of the discussion: How can Uncle Sam “update the entire federal compensation system to be more market-based and performance-oriented?”

That inevitably led to a discussion of “pay for performance,” a central element in the Defense Department’s discarded National Security Personnel System (NSPS).

Patricia Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, provided an insightful examination of NSPS pros and cons.

“Under NSPS, an employee’s pay raise, promotion, demotion or dismissal was much less inhibited than current General Schedule rules permit,” she said.

Yet, NSPS flaws demonstrated the difference in theory and practice. With NSPS, “implementation failed to follow design,” she added.

Discrimination was not in the NSPS design, but was part of its practice.

“It paid very well to be white and male,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee. “It didn’t work so well for a lot of other folks.”

Actually, a 2008 report by the Federal Times showed that “white employees received higher average performance ratings, salary increases and bonuses” than others, but “women received larger total payouts overall than did their male counterparts even though they both received the same performance ratings on average.”

Though there was much talk about hot button “pay for performance” plans, that term is “a distraction,” said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service. The good government group recently issued a report on civil service reform.

The real issue, said Palguta, who was not at the hearing, is “the government’s inability to pay what folks outside the government are paying for scarce talent.” That’s particularly true, he said, at incoming professional levels and for highly skilled employees.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, defended current pay classification systems and General Schedule flexibility, which others say is lacking.

“The Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990 (FEPCA) already established a market-based system that provides regional, market-based pay differentials,” he said after the hearing. “Yet, Congress has never funded it. So if the intent is to have market pay rather than a NSPS type of discretion that leads to discrimination against women and minorities, then all Congress needs to do is fund FEPCA.”

Also at the hearing was Donald Devine, OPM director during the Reagan administration. He began his testimony by offering another question: “What is somebody who was OPM director 30 years ago doing here?”

Good question. Providing positive feedback to Republican questions that amounted to pointed criticisms of the federal workforce seemed to be his main role.

But Devine also provided an accurate characterization of civil service reform discussions.

“This is boring stuff,” he said. “But it is critical stuff.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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