OPM director considers overhaul of civil service system

"We need to think about how we can refresh the GS system," says OPM Director John Berry.
"We need to think about how we can refresh the GS system," says OPM Director John Berry. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The federal civil service system that has provided employees comfort, and sometimes frustration, for 60 years might not last another one in its current form.

By early summer, the Obama administration plans to propose a transformation of the compensation structure that has ruled the lives of U.S. government employees since Harry S. Truman was their boss.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, is considering what would amount to a major overhaul of the GS, or General Schedule, classification and pay system that began in 1949.

"We need to think about how we can refresh the GS system," he said in an interview, quickly adding: "I don't think anybody is proposing to throw it out."

While Berry said he has nothing on paper yet, the thoughts he shared indicate the administration's serious approach to the way government manages and rewards its employees.

That was demonstrated in the "Improving the Federal Workforce" section of the budget President Obama sent to Congress last week. The document dealt with a broad range of federal employee issues and spent a considerable amount of ink justifying why they get paid as well as they do. Federal workers are, on average, an older and bettereducated lot than people in the private sector, according to the budget document. Nonetheless, other government figures indicate that federal staffers are paid less than employees in similar businessworld positions.

Berry expanded on the budget chapter by discussing a potential renovation of the GS system. Referring to the budget, he said, "We're laying the groundwork for the reform effort."

That reform would have three elements: performance accountability, pay flexibility and professional training that, he said, "will allow our employees to advance in the federal service and grow over the course of their careers."

He mused about eliminating the first two ranks of the 15-grade GS system and adding grades 16 and 17. Berry did not explicitly advocate a pay raise for federal workers during the interview, but those in the added grades presumably would be paid more than the current top rate. He did say that reworking the classification system "could more accurately reflect pay for the categories the federal government is employing today."

When the GS system began, government was "a paper-pushing operation," he said. "It is a much different workforce today, a higher-educated white- collar workforce that is tackling very sophisticated problems, like cyber-security issues, terrorism, financial fraud."

Rather than the present system of rigid and narrow job classifications, Berry would like one that would allow employees more movement within and between agencies, a system with "established ladders so they would know that with the right training and the right effort, they could be promoted."

Berry thinks the GS system does a good job when it comes to paying and treating people fairly. But he doesn't think it adequately ties pay to performance, though "pay for performance" is term he no longer uses because federal union leaders find it profane.

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