“[T]heir findings should not be taken in isolation as the answer to how federal pay and total compensation compares with other sectors,” the GAO study says.
So where does that leave the debate?
The same place it was before the GAO weighed in.
The GAO helps us understand how experts arrived at their conclusions, but it doesn’t tell us which conclusion is correct.
The GAO looked at studies by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research, Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Cato Institute, President’s Pay Agent, Heritage Foundation and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
AEI, Heritage and the CBO use the human capital approach, which considers personal attributes, such as education, experience, race and gender.
POGO and the President’s Pay Agent (composed of the labor secretary, the Office of Management and Budget director and the Office of Personnel Management director) make job-to-job comparisons “based on job-related attributes such as occupation and level of work,” according to the GAO. Personal characteristics of workers are not considered.
Cato uses a trend analysis that “illustrates broad trends in pay over time without controlling for attributes of the workers or jobs,” GAO said.
All of this is nice to know, but the “so what” question remains.
So does the debate.
Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who has been critical of federal compensation, said the government should include “benefits like the relatively high level of job security federal workers enjoy, when making decisions related to pay and total compensation. Clearly the Federal government needs to do more to create a federal pay model that more closely tracks economic conditions that exist in the private sector.”
John Gage, president of American Federation of Government Employees, said: “The human capital approach is entirely worthless for pay-setting. It provides no useful information for Congress or the Executive branch regarding the question of whether federal salaries are comparable to those in the private sector or state and local government for workers performing the same kinds of jobs.”
Robert Goldenkoff, the GAO’s director of strategic issues, said in an interview that the Pay Agent has recommended that a congressionally appointed commission examine the issue to ensure that federal and private pay comparisons are as accurate as possible.
One thing that won’t develop an accurate picture is mixing all the methodologies in a pot to cook up an average.
“You can’t do some sort of mash-up,” Goldenkoff said.