Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 6, 2008; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr writes the Federal Diary column, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and took the column live Wednesday, Feb. 6 at noon ET to discuss the joys and pains of working for the federal government.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts


Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today! The president's budget is out, with a proposed 2.9 percent federal employee raise and a 3.4 percent increase for the military, both in 2009. The administration, meanwhile, announced in the Federal Register today that it wants to eliminate the time-in-grade requirement, saying it is outdated. Eliminating the rule will reinforce the idea that people should get promotions because of their qualifications and merit, the Register notice says. I welcome your comments on these and other topics!


Washington: Mr. Barr -- is there any pressure this year to increase the Executive Schedule caps? Many other positions' pay is tied to that schedule. Here in Washington, and in San Francisco, New York and other major cities with high costs of living, feds suffer from very serious pay compression. I've hit the cap. I love my job, but admit that I'm considering offers from the private sector just so I can maintain my family's standard of living. Thanks for your wonderful column.

Stephen Barr: I've seen no pressure. The Bush administration is sliding into lame-duck status, and Congress is interested only in budgeting and appropriations, with one eye focused on the November elections. So I don't see any relief this year.

With corporations facing the prospect of a continued economic slowdown this year, I don't expect to see any market-based pressures to spur action here, either.

So look to 2010 for pay reform!


Fairfax, Va.: Steve, thanks for the chat. I'm one of the many GS-15s who now have bumped into the pay cap associated with the Executive Schedule. I'm in the Department of Defense, and I'm wondering if those under NSPS also are subject to the same cap.

Stephen Barr: The NSPS does have caps in the pay bands, but I have not been able to do the math for how those caps crosswalk to the General Schedule. For some reason, NSPS only publishes a base pay schedule; it does not put up locality schedules related to the pay bands.


Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri: Just read your article on the new NSPS system. I think you need to check your facts closer and not just print the stats the feds give you. A GS employee who was still eligible for in grade steps (i.e. GS 11 Step 2 or Step 3 or whatever) that got sucked up into the new NSPS system received less money than they would have remaining under the GS system and getting the step increase. The only ones benefiting from the NSPS are those senior folks who no longer are eligible for the steps. Make a couple of calls to the actual employees and see what they think! Better yet, save time and Google "NSPS sucks" to review the many horror stories and vocal posts of those willing to tell it like it is.

washingtonpost.com: For Many Defense Workers, a Day With Some Merit (Post, Jan. 25)

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback. Please check out last week's transcript, where people questioned the NSPS.

Given that NSPS now covers 110,000 people and is growing, I don't think I can just ignore the official statistics. The Department of Defense acknowledges that about 5,000-plus employees did not keep up with the GS this year. The real issue may be the long-term trend.

But we're talking heavy-duty analysis here; hopefully a member of Congress will ask GAO to do that, and we'll have an independent third party that is able to crunch these numbers.


Springfield, Va.: I work in a federal agency that has had a pay banding system for seven years, and I have a few comments to those who have been posting lately. I know that our system is different than what the Pentagon system is, but my agency has been a model that others are using to build their systems. First, under the GS system if you have been in a grade for more than a certain number of years (I'm not sure since I never have been in it) you don't get step increases every year but rather every two or three years. Under a pay banding system, you get performance pay (assuming you do a decent job) every year. So you may not "do as well as under the GS system" every year, but over time you have more opportunities to get a raise.

Second, pay banding systems allow for more and larger bonuses, as an incentive to "go the extra mile" or some other such cliche. Third, if a person is not "doing as well" under a pay banding system as under the GS system, that should be used an incentive to work harder. The entire point of pay banding is to give people an incentive to do more than be adequate to receive a raise.

I acknowledge that many people are afraid of their raises being tied to the whims of their supervisors' evaluations. In my experience supervisors have done their best to be fair, and their evaluations are highly scrutinized by their supervisors above them. To protect employees, and much to the dismay of supervisors, there is a very high level of documentation required when either very positive or mildly negative information is included in appraisals. To conclude a long-winded post, pay banding isn't so bad -- and comparing it to the GS system is not a useful exercise, because it is meant to be entirely different.

Stephen Barr: Thank you for taking the time to write up this posting!

I realize it is probably best to not get hung up on comparing the two, but it is a natural response. After all, the last big experiment with performance pay, for managers in the 1980s, failed to work as planned. And the IRS and FAA still have trouble administering performance pay. For the short term, good data helps people sort through this and get a fix on where they stand, and we still don't have that data.


Newport News, Va.: I have been battling my agency on a hostile work environment case for more than a year and have not received a performance review. How will my pay be affected with the change to NSPS?

Stephen Barr: If you have a within-grade raise pending, NSPS likely will buy you out and bump up your salary a bit. Then you will roll into the job performance appraisal process, which produces a job rating, which is linked to the annual pay raise.

As an employee in NSPS, you need to document your accomplishments and be able to show you met the expectations laid out by your manager at the beginning of the evaluation cycle.


Fairfax Station, Va.: Given that Congress has been providing parity for the past several years, and that this is an election year, do you expect the Civil Service to end up with the same 3.5 percent pay raise proposed for the military when Congress completes final action?

Stephen Barr: Based on recent history, yes.

Washington-area House members did not specify what kind of raise will come out of the appropriations process for 2009, but they were not pleased that OMB did not back pay parity.


Washington: Stephen, I'm not a GS-15 or an SES out there (actually a GS-13 with a GS-14 salary), but just wanted to throw this out there ... Tom Ridge left a cabinet-level position citing that he needed sufficient income to put his kids through college. Granted that there may have been other reasons, but when a cabinet member leaves to pay for their kids' higher education, we have a problem with pay.

Stephen Barr: I always take it with a grain of salt when a Cabinet official says he is leaving because he does not have enough income to put the kids through college. Many of us finance college educations on less than $150,000 salaries. True, they may not be Ivy League educations, but state universities are pretty darn good these days.

To be sure, the higher grades in the government are underpaid compared to corporate salaries. Congress is considering a bill to raise the pay of federal judges, who often make less than law school deans.

I've got no answer here, except that Congress needs to be less timid on this topic and order up a pay-restructuring study. At some point people will stop joining the public service, or will leave early because of diminished salary opportunities.


Baltimore: Stephen, federal employees who believe that a Democratic administration would be better as far as their pay, benefits and job security are concerned, but who acknowledge that a Republican president likely would be better in vital areas such as national security, will face quite a dilemma in November. Sort of like "your money or your life" of Jack Benny fame.

Stephen Barr: Interesting thought you offer, Baltimore.

It's also possible that it won't matter which party controls the White House, from a federal employee perspective. The next president will face huge pressure to cut the deficit and to revamp entitlement spending. That won't leave much on the plate for feds, I fear.


Stuttgart, Germany: Good morning, Stephen. What can you tell me about going back to work for the federal government after one has retired? I retired in 2007 but now have a chance to go back to work in Europe. What are the exact rules that govern that?

Stephen Barr: Hello, Germany! Always love to know The Post has international readers!

If you return to work for the Defense Department, it has the authority to waive any salary offset, as current rules require -- in other words, you will be able to collect a full annuity and a full salary.

If you return to a non-Defense agency, you will need to ask whether a waiver can be granted. Your health insurance should switch back to an employee premium, which might be cheaper. You'll need to ask about retirement with your new employer, because the agency may not be obligated to give you credits, depending on the authority used to bring you back.

Best of luck!


Rockville, Md.: Stephen, I remember an article in the past discussing a change to the way maternity leave would be handled. I think they were going to provide paid time off for the mother, or something like that, in order to woo young professionals into the federal government. Have there been any changes, are they working on it? Where can I get that info? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York is pushing for paid parental leave. If a Democrat wins the White House her bill might have a chance. The Bush administration has looked into offering short-term disability insurance as a way to provide maternity benefits, but that proposal seems to be going nowhere.


Mount Rainier, Md.: Mr. Barr, with regard to federal employee pay, one issue looming large but completely off the radar is how the raises are paid for within the budget. The 4.49 percent that D.C. area feds got this year, for example is cancelled out by the level funding most agencies received in the Omnibus. Put another way, at the Executive Branch Agency where I work, the programs I manage have seen a 25 percent increase in full-time equivalent salaries since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2003, but a net 3 percent increase in funds to cover that. As a result, our "program funds," which pay for everything else we need to do our jobs, have declined 16 percent in the same period. If this issue isn't surfaced and dealt with, we'll soon be at a point where feds are getting their salaries, but sitting in dark buildings with old computers and no ability to actually do anything for American taxpayers.

Stephen Barr: Excellent point. Congress usually funds the military pay raise, but does not fund or only partially funds the GS raises. You are right about the lights being turned off. Not far off we'll probably hear an agency leader ask his workforce whether they would like new computers or a raise.


Kingstowne, Va.: I'm not saying that high-ranking Feds are overpaid or underpaid, but I like the notion that public servants are not compensated as well as the private sector, where greed rules, and the public good is often secondary to profits. When someone takes a lower-paying government job over a higher paying private sector job, it's a fair sign that actually serving the public is part of their character. Just the way I see things.

Stephen Barr: You are on-point! But we need incentives to serve, and a decent salary should be a part of that discussion.


Rockville, Md.: If you are a recent college grad, what is your motivation for becoming a fed? Said recent college grads probably never will be able to afford a house in the area, your yearly "raise" likely will not keep up with inflation for the foreseeable future and there just seems to be a general malaise in government (in as far as getting stuff done). Again, what is the motivation -- besides the obvious- of "working for your country"? Where is the upside?

Stephen Barr: If you've got a strong desire to serve, then you can find a niche in the government that makes the sacrifice worthwhile, but it is tough in high-cost cities, and we only can hope that the president's pay agents start paying attention to housing and other living costs when figuring out raises. Right now their focus is on the relationship between the feds and private-sector wage growth, and I'm not sure that is such a great indicator anymore.


Fairfax, Va.: Steve -- there was a report in the news this morning about a credit union running into trouble because it held high-grade bonds that turned out to be backed by subprime mortgages. Is there any chance that the Thrift Savings Plan F bond fund is vulnerable to the same risk?

Stephen Barr: The F Fund is indexed to the market, so returns can swing back and forth a bit. Still, I don't think it is vulnerable because it tracks the entire bond market, not just high-grade and junk bonds.


Re: Newport News, Va.: What about people who sit on extended administrative leave when they have problems with their clearance? They don't go into work and can neither make nor meet job expectations, often through no fault of their own.

Stephen Barr: Good point, and something that managers have to take into account when evaluating employees for annual raises.


Washington: Whatever happened with the windfall elimination act that was before Congress in November? Is it a dying issue? Never heard anything.

Stephen Barr: Afraid so. Repeal of the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset carries a high price tag, and Congress does not appear ready to reduce revenue to the Treasury anytime soon.


Midwest: Thank you for your column today about the Social Security Administration budget. We here in the trenches appreciate all the support we can get, economic (best of course) or moral.

washingtonpost.com: Social Security, DHS Say Bush's Budget Falls Short (Post, Feb. 6)

Stephen Barr: Thanks for your kind words, and thank you for your service to fellow Americans!

Well folks, once again, we've run out of time today. Thank you for the questions and comments, and we'll see you back here at noon next Wednesday!


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