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Federal Diary: OPM chief floats ideas on personnel system fix

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By Joe Davidson
Friday, November 20, 2009

In greater detail than he has before, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry outlined his thinking on remaking the federal personnel system during a speech this week.

His address to a Human Capital Management: Federal conference was part of a series of discussions he is holding to help in the monumental task of developing a new civil service system. With the backing of the White House, Berry has established a set of far-reaching goals, including fixing the government's recruitment and hiring process and overhauling the federal pay system.

His remarks were built around several questions, or pillars, that could provide a framework for a new personnel management system.

"The central question I ask all of you today is: 'How do we practice the principle of merit in the 21st Century,''' he said in the text of the speech released by his office. "To unpack that question, how do we define and appraise merit today? How do we make our system flexible enough to let the best workers and managers run as fast and as far as their talent and drive can take them, but fair enough to keep the system from running amok? How do we motivate and reward good performance, and address poor performance, without cronyism or favoritism? How do we train, educate, and develop workers over the course of their careers to make the most of their abilities?"

While saying he doesn't have all the answers, Berry offered possible solutions that provide clues to his thinking on a redo of the way federal employees are managed and compensated. For example, to motivate and reward good performance and address poor performance, he said employees could have mandatory three- and six-month reviews in which they were "clearly told that they were in one of three categories:

" 'In good standing' -- for the 80 to 90 percent of workers who are doing a solid job. This rating should come with a pat on the back and the regular COLA. 'Outstanding'-- for the 5 to 10 percent who have really helped move the ball on achieving core agency mission and results. This rating should come with meaningful rewards, and we should think about how to do that within the current agency personnel budgets," he continued.

"Or 'not in good standing' for the 5 percent of workers who are in need of improvement or removal." They would get no raise, an opportunity to improve and, he added, "a timely appeals process that ensures fairness."

The General Schedule that covers many federal workers "is strained to the breaking point," Berry said. "We could limp along for a few more years in the current GS system, or we can seize this moment to build something new."

Slow going on telework

Impatient with the slow progress in offering telework opportunities to more federal employees, seven unions recently encouraged Berry to give organized labor a strong role in developing telework programs.

"Creating and implementing a successful telework program would obviously require the involvement of the unions representing federal workers. We can provide unique insights into identifying employees that are best suited for telework. In particular, union representatives should have a strong presence on the advisory group to formulate telework policy standards and assist agencies in formulating their telework policies," the unions said in a letter to Berry.

Expanding telework in the federal workplace is like using a dial-up Internet connection on a bad day. Berry, in an August report to Congress on the "Status of Telework in the Federal Government," said there is "steady albeit very slow progress in telework."

According to that report, only 5.2 percent of the total federal workforce and 8.7 percent of eligible workers teleworked in fiscal 2008.

Union expands

Like the little engine that could, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers is growing among the ranks of unionized federal workers.

The union, which added Government Accountability Office analysts last year and employees with the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. this year, expanded this month to include the Tennessee Valley Authority Engineering Association. Its more than 2,600 members are engineers, scientists, technicians and other professionals at the TVA.

"This partnership provides us with new connections to Washington, to the labor movement and to other engineers and professionals," said Gay Henson, president of the Engineering Association. "IFPTE also will lend expertise to help us with legislation and negotiations."

IFPTE also represents engineers, skilled workers and others in private industry.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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