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Why federal workers deserve what they're paid

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A13

President Obama may not have given federal workers much of a salary increase -- just 1.4 percent -- in his proposed budget for fiscal 2011, but he did show them some love.

And that demonstration of affection could pay off for Frankie and Flo Fed, including in ways they can take to the bank.

The affection is apparent in Chapter 10 of the "Analytical Perspectives" section of the budget. "We are fortunate to be able to rely upon a skilled workforce committed to the public service," it says.

Of course, lip service like that comes quick and easy. What makes this budget stand out is the level of serious attention that the White House, through its Office of Management and Budget, gives to federal employees. Recent budgets by previous administrations have not gone into the depth of detail on federal-workplace issues that Obama's spending plan does.

The OMB's focus on the workforce is important because of the critical role the budget office plays in setting -- and enforcing -- administration priorities. Under Obama, that muscle is being applied to workplace matters in a determined fashion. Says Donald F. Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy: "If you grab people by their budgets, their hearts and minds will follow."

With the title "Improving the Federal Workforce," Chapter 10 covers a variety of topics, including old favorites such as improving the federal hiring process, restoring the balance between employees and contractors, and improving employee training -- a significant inclusion in a time of cutbacks. It also talks about using data collected to protect against fraud in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program to improve health and lower insurance costs. And early in the chapter is a cogent rebuttal to those who misleadingly argue that federal pay is greater on average than private-sector pay.

Let's look at that.

The budget answers critics, including Scott Brown, the newly elected Republican senator from Massachusetts, who say federal civilians earn much more than private-sector workers. There's a reason for that. Federal workers are better educated.

"The Federal Government hires lawyers to tackle corruption, security professionals to monitor our borders, doctors to care for our injured veterans, and world-class scientists to combat deadly diseases such as cancer," the budget says. "Because of these vital needs, the Federal Government hires a relatively highly educated workforce, resulting in higher average pay."

Consider these stats: Twenty percent of federal workers have a master's, professional or doctorate degree, compared with 13 percent in the private sector. Fifty-one percent of federal employees have a college degree of some sort, but only 35 percent do in the private sector.

Frankie and Flo may not be smarter than other folks, but they do have more schooling, and they get paid accordingly. They are also substantially older, and that contributes to higher pay -- 46 percent of federal employees are 50 or older, compared with 31 percent of private-sector workers.

Although the section doesn't say so, comparing overall federal and private-sector pay is misleading in another way, because Uncle Sam doesn't employ many people at the bottom of the wage scale the way industry does.

Job-for-job comparisons tell a completely different story. In fact, government figures indicate that federal employees are underpaid by 26 percent compared with their counterparts in similar position in the business world.

This section is important because it lays the groundwork for raising federal pay, at some point, so it is more in line with the private sector, an objective defined in the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act of 1990, a law no administration has enforced.

The chapter also counters those who might see a growing federal workforce as an indication that government is getting too big. In 1988, when Ronald Reagan, that champion of small government, was president, there was one federal employee for every 110 residents. Twenty years later, the ratio was one to 155.

The White House will need information like that, said Paul Light, a New York University professor of public service, because "I think the tea party is going to come after the administration sooner or later" over plans to expand the workforce.

The document may become ammunition, but for now it provides a clear indication of the importance the administration places on the workers who ultimately carry out the policies the suits in corner offices devise.

"I can't recall seeing an administration budget that paid this kind of positive attention to the federal workforce," said John Palguta, a vice president of the good-government Partnership for Public Service and a former federal personnel manager. The budget is a "clear demonstration to me that this isn't just idle talk for the administration."

Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

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