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Federal Diary: OPM's Berry talks of ending GS system

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By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If the federal civil service had a flag, it would be flying upside down.

The civil service is in distress -- not dead, but in need of rescue.

Recognizing this, John Berry, the Office of Personnel Management director, ran some sweeping ideas up the flagpole on Monday to see who salutes. At the same time he heaped praise on the "unsung heroes" of the civil service who make safe the water we drink, the air we breathe and the roads we travel. But don't be surprised if a few of his comments make some heads spin.

The early reviews of Berry's speech from some players deeply involved in federal employee issues ranged from support to at least a willingness to work with Berry to fashion a better system.

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, praised the "willingness by Berry to think creatively and to think aggressively about changes that might be necessary in our system."

One change that falls into the aggressive category was Berry's mention of "entirely eliminating classification" for federal employees. That would mean doing away with the General Schedule -- better known as the GS system -- that for 60 years has been the main pay and compensation arrangement for Frankie and Flo Fed.

Berry's comments came during a speech at Syracuse University, where he received a master's degree in public administration in 1981. During a telephone interview, he emphasized that he's not pushing any of the thoughts as his own policy prescriptions. He said he wanted to present a number of "bold ideas," collected from a variety of sources, in one place to allow people "to help me chew and wrestle with these things."

The speech comes at a crucial point as Uncle Sam tries to figure out how to organize the civil service, not to mention hiring and paying those who populate it. Congress recently told the Pentagon to come up with a system to replace its National Security Personnel System, the botched civilian pay-for-performance scheme that was the Bush administration's advance guard for killing the GS.

Despite Berry's assertion that he has not come to any conclusions on the ideas he floated, his prepared text hints that he believes the GS system at least needs a major overhaul.

After pointing to the need to pay "great deference" to the classification system's "core value" of equal pay for equal work, Berry said: "But when it prevents managers from adapting their job responsibilities to the ever-shifting responsibilities of their departments, it becomes a millstone. And classification today has become so stilted, and our HR staffers have become so used to manipulating it, that in the words of one of them, 'a good classifier could make a Dixie cup a GS-14.' "

Federal job classification does not protect the equal-pay principle, he concluded. "But it is taking up a lot of time, and it is limiting our flexibility to define jobs properly and promote the best people quickly.

"So maybe we should scrap it entirely?" he said.


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