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Federal Diary

Readers' Reactions to New Homeland Security Rules a Mixed Bag

By Stephen Barr
Monday, February 7, 2005; Page B02

S everal days ago, readers were asked to offer their views on the new pay and personnel rules at the Department of Homeland Security. As you might expect, the Monday Morning Mailbag is overflowing with comments.

The department's new system, as outlined in a Feb. 1 regulation, will weaken unions, streamline the process for appealing disciplinary action and replace the 15-grade General Schedule with a performance-based pay system. Those changes, which will be phased in over the next few years, give clear authority to Homeland Security managers to deploy and assign employees to ensure that the department can act when necessary. The regulation also gives managers more discretion in setting pay and rewarding good performance.

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Stephen Barr can be reached by e-mail at barrs@washpost.com.

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Federal Diary readers see good and bad in the regulation. Here are some excerpts from the recent e-mails:

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Patrick M. McGinn said he thinks the department's new pay system "is a first step in the direction of common sense in terms of pay that matches performance."

McGinn applauded the "up or out" system of promotions used by the military and said pay increases should be based on performance and not just time in the job. In the civil service, he said, "The incentive is to 'survive' to the next pay raise window. Don't stand out and skyline yourself, both in the negative sense that you might get fired and in the positive sense that if you do well, you make everyone else look bad. Consistent mediocrity ensures a pay raise."

Frances Holt, a retired supervisor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, worked under an experimental personnel system and found that "high-performing employees were rewarded well and some were quite surprised at how well this worked for them." But she warned that "these systems are budget busters" and noted that sometimes there was not enough money to award significant salary increases or bonuses.

But an employee at an independent agency that has run a pay experiment suggested that it is wrong to say federal employees get promoted only because of longevity. "Promotion from one GS grade to another is based on performance and achievement," he wrote. Although within-grade increases often are based on time in the grade, the employee noted that they have to be approved by supervisors.

"If a bad or underperforming employee is given a step increase, then that is a management problem for approving it, not something broken in the GS system business practice," he wrote. He asked not to be identified because "management does not take kindly to negative comments about pay-for-performance issues."

In his agency's pay project, he said, "Many favored employees got higher payouts only due to their relationship with their pay pool manager." He also noted that his system has a "drastic negative effect" on employee pensions, because older employees get more bonuses, which don't count as retirement credits, rather than pay raises, which do.

A personnel professional in the government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called for an investigation into why the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act is being ignored, since that law emphasizes the importance of job performance.

"The 'system' enacted into law almost 30 years ago may have failed because human beings did not implement it nor were they held accountable," the personnel professional wrote.

A number of readers agreed and said the problem is not the system but the bosses.

"By far, the greatest problem with civil service today is very poor management by incompetent managers," Warren Steen, who left the government after a 22-year career.

Michael Farabaugh, who retired last year after 28 years of federal service, said: "None of the proposed changes that I have seen will address the problem that many civil servants are faced with on a daily basis. Many managers and supervisors are ill-prepared to manage or supervise anyone."

An employee at the Naval Research Laboratory in the District, which operates under a performance-based personnel system, said most employees view the system as arbitrary and unfair. His lab is on its third version, he wrote. "My impression of all of them is that they don't work and can't work, largely as a result of the lack of ethical and skillful management and a lack of will on the part of managers, who are generally unwilling to make decisions that have any great impact."

Those excerpts don't tell the whole story, of course. If you have something to say on this topic, send an e-mail.

2006 Pay Proposal

In case you missed the news Saturday, President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget calls for a 3.1 percent pay raise for the military and a 2.3 percent pay raise for the civil service next year. The White House sends the budget to Congress today.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com.


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