HR officials say GS system needs reform

Joe Davidson
Columnist August 8, 2012

The Partnership for Public Service knows a timely news peg, even one that’s a stretch.

This is the first line of its report on a series of interviews with top federal personnel officials:

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

“If overseeing the federal workforce were an Olympic event, it would only be fair to judge performance by the degree of difficulty. For chief human capital officers (CHCOs), that degree of difficulty is perhaps higher than ever.”

The paper, “Bracing for Change,” reports on a series of interviews with 55 CHCOs (pronounced cheek-oos). What emerges from the sessions is a broad desire — or expectation — on the part of the personnel professionals for significant change in the way Uncle Sam manages his staff.

Some key points:

●“The federal pay system is out of date, fragmented and inefficient.”

●“Veterans preference is not working as intended.”

●A more uniform performance-management approach is needed across agencies.

●Declining budgets and high employee turnover are among the top challenges.

Pay is always a controversial topic in the federal workplace and the recommendations in the report will be too. It said CHCOs “strongly agreed that the 1949 General Schedule (GS) pay system in place for most federal employees is woefully inadequate.”

At the top of the recommendations: “Reform the civil service system.”

“There is a pretty consistent level of dissatisfaction with today’s system,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership. (The Partnership has a content- sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

The CHCOs didn’t endorse an alternative, but they favor “a pay system with a smaller number of broader pay bands in place of the GS system’s 15 grade levels,” says the report.

That recommendation is not going to get a “10” from federal unions.

“The General Schedule has significant flexibility to reward top performers and to deal with those who are not performing adequately, but is often hampered by the inadequacy of managerial training in the use of these flexibilities,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

And William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said “just because a pay system is old, that doesn’t mean it’s not good.”

Pay bands, he added, “will be used simply to prevent workers from receiving their earned pay adjustments. Favoritism and discrimination were rampant under the recently abolished National Security Personnel System, the poster child of failed government pay-banding systems. When the system becomes subjective, rank-and-file employees get the short end of the stick, it’s that simple.”

The personnel officials were less than fully enthusiastic about the veterans preference system. They support giving vets preference for government gigs, but they raised important questions about the process and conflicts with other priorities.

“For example, some CHCOs noted that veterans preference clashes with diversity hiring goals, since most veterans are white males,” according to the report, scheduled for release Thursday by the Partnership and the Grant Thorton consulting firm.

One disturbing “unintended outcome” identified by the HR officials, the paper added, “is that non-veterans essentially are excluded from consideration for some entry-level jobs, regardless of their overall qualifications or their qualifications relative to veterans who are hired.”

In an interview, Robert Shea, a Grant Thorton principal, urged CHCOs to be more active in pushing for change within their agencies and with Congress.

“CHCOs need to step up,” he said, “and make really rigorous arguments” for the flexibilities they need.

Diversity reports

As we reported in the Federal Eye blog, the Office of Personnel Management recently released two reports regarding diversity in federal employment.

The reports on Hispanics and people with disabilities show noteworthy increases in employment, particularly among Latinos in the Senior Executive Service.

The percentage of new SES hires who are Hispanic jumped to 5.4 percent in fiscal 2011, from 2.7 percent the year before, a significant increase. The increase in federal Latino employment overall was insignificant, from 8 percent in 2010 to 8.1 percent last year.

Among 23 large departments and agencies, five had percentage declines in their Hispanic employment, although the actual number of Latinos increased in four of those agencies. Ironically, perhaps, it is at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission where, from 2010 to 2011, the number and percentage of Hispanics fell — from 344 to 328 and 13.7 percent to 13.4 percent.

EEOC attributed the change to a hiring freeze.

“We have also lost employees to retirements and career advancement opportunities,” said Christine Saah Nazer, the agency’s acting communications director, “and the agency has not had the means to fill behind those who have left.”

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

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