Federal Diary Live
With Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2003; Noon ET
The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Sunday through Friday in the Metro section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a staff writer covering the federal bureaucracy. He takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Stephen Barr: Welcome to our weekly online discussion. Civil service reform is once again in the Washington air. The president's budget includes a request for $500 million to set up a "performance fund" that would reward the government's best workers with higher pay raises, and the Defense Department is seeking far-reaching authority to overhaul how it hires and pays its civil service employees. We should get our first clues as to what legislative changes are in the works by week's end. This afternoon, the House Government Reform Committee marks up a bill that would give personnel flexibilities to the Pentagon, NASA and the Securities and Exchange Commission. With that snapshot, let's go to the questions.
Bethesda, Md.: Steve,
Some comments on the proposed DOD personnel plan. I currently work under a DOD personnel DEMO project. While I am generally pleased with the way it has gone for me, I don't understand the DOD's rush to a wider overhaul of the personnel system. Performance evaluations under our DEMO project are only slightly more meaningful than under the old system. It takes time for managers to learn to evaluate workers in a useful way. Without a means to provide meaningful evaluations, paybanding just allows "automatic" pay raises to occur over a wider range. What I mean is that under the old GS system, the time in grade step increases are almost automatic. If you have paybanding without meaningful evaluations, the same automatic increases occur over a wider pay range than a single GS grade.
washingtonpost.com: Defense Bigwigs Push for Pentagon's Civil Service Overhaul (Post, May 7)
Stephen Barr: Excellent point. There does seem to be a rush here, but there's a good chance that Congress will slow the Pentagon down. Most likely, Defense will be given the same flexibilities as those granted the Department of Homeland Security last year. That sounds reasonable, but DHS is still trying to design its new personnel system, so we won't have any "real time" track record to use on what works and doesn't work when you massively scale up to pay for performance. No doubt about it -- meaningful distinctions in job performance are key to making a new system work. But no large organization does that well. Defense officials point to an April 2 Federal Register notice on a lab demo project as the model for what they want to do department-wide. Managers/supervisors will need a lot of training to make this work right. Will the Pentagon, can the Pentagon, make that happen?
Arlington, Va.: Can someone hand Mr. Walker a megaphone? Your Tuesday column spouted the most sense I have heard in a long time!
I'm still pessimistic, though. I don't work for DOD, but I'm very afraid of pay-for-performance without management reforms.
And to counter others who will disagree with me: I am not a sloth. I have scored at the top and at the bottom of my group in successive years, without any meaningful differences in my work style or results. There has been totally inconsistent employee reviews over here at Justice. I'd also love to give management a review, too. Some of them really need it.
washingtonpost.com: Hill Should Heed GAO Chief's Cautions on Civil Service Changes at the Pentagon (Post, May 6)
Stephen Barr: I'm afraid Comptroller General David Walker is going to be ignored in this debate. First, Defense officials want their proposal on the FY 2004 defense authorization bill, which is scheduled to wrap up in about 10 days. Secondly, Walker wants to build in government-wide safeguards, and many readers have told me that they believe government-wide approaches are doomed because it involves too many moving parts. As to your other point, the recent employee survey conducted by OPM show that most employees to do not hold their agency's top leadership in high regard. Trust is what is need to make reform work. Is there time to build trust?
Portland, Ore.: Since the TSA is reducing airport screeners from 55,600 to 45,000 (Congressional Mandated Number) and they say only 6000 will go -- where are the other 4600 airport screeners going to be cut?
Stephen Barr: TSA is working on that now. They will have some people leave through normal turnover, and they have hired others on a provisional basis, giving them short-term appointments or part-time status. To be honest, though, I don't have a good answer. Do you think the job reduction will adversely affect TSA operations?
Cubicle in Pentagon, Arlington, Va.: Is there someplace (hopefully on the Internet) where the DoD proposals on personnel reform can be found? While the Post reporting is excellent, it would be nice for those of us it will effect to have a place where we can read the proposed changes.
Stephen Barr: Thanks for your kind words. It's important to remember that the Pentagon's proposal is going to be changed on Capitol Hill, starting this afternoon. So what you read is not the final product, but it will give you a sense of what Defense hopes to do.
For a copy of the legislative proposal, go to:
For the real details, go to the Government Printing Office or a congressional website that links to the Federal Register. Search for the April 2, 2003 edition, Volume 68, Number 63. The details start on page 16119.
Riverdale, Md.: NASA, SEC, Defense -- does this mean that Civil Service Reform will be piecemeal? Why aren't other federal agencies hurrying to put in their own legislation? Although our (USDA)HR people have used OPM and the law for years to explain "Why change can't happen."
Stephen Barr: Yes, that's one conclusion to draw. The three agencies are trying to stay under civil service law, but carving out exceptions for what they see are their particular needs. Defense goes farther than anyone, including DHS, it appears. My guess is that Defense will get a big part of what it wants from Congress, and OPM will have to regroup and figure out a new future for itself.
Washington, D.C.: Let's face it -- the "fast track" process in this case is just another example of this president's philosophy of "Whatever I Can Get Away With"
Stephen Barr: Many employees would agree. There is a lot of agreement that civil service reforms are needed; it's a shame that the Pentagon did not do more outreach to reassure and explain what it plans.
Washington, D.C.: Steve, but given feedback from across government, supervisors and managers already need more training for the personnel systems they are currently under. Don't see that as a major reason to slow down personnel changes.
Stephen Barr: Point well taken. But many employees tell me they are uncomfortable with the idea of managers taking control of their pay. Others argue that managers won't make the hard decisions and just find a way to spread around the pay raises to everyone in their shop.
Washington, D.C.: Does OPM have a registry for certain jobs that are pre-screened?
Can you go to OPM and meet with a "live" person to discuss veterans preference?
Stephen Barr: I'm not sure what you mean about jobs that are pre-screened. You may be referring to "hiring off the register," which is where agencies that have a large number of the same kind of job keep a file of applicants on the assumption that vacancies will open up. This used to be done at OPM but now it is primarily done by the individual agencies.
As for your second question, call 202 606 1000 and ask for Maj. Barry Williams. If he cannot field you're call, OPM will hand you off to one of its experts on veterans preference.
Washington, D.C.: Is there one organization that overlooks the Inspectors General operations?
Stephen Barr: The deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget typically chairs an interagency council of inspectors general. Most IGs also come under scrutiny from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which has a keen interest in waste, fraud and abuse in the executive branch.
Vienna, Austria: Seems we've gone from a too cautious time with NPR under Clinton/Gore to hellbent with Bush. Maybe the next administration will hit a productive middle ground in civil service reform.
Stephen Barr: Interesting way to look at it. Gore's reinventing government project ran into lots of stealth opposition at OMB and in some Cabinet departments. Even some of the administration's political appointees didn't want to get with the program. Gore did cut staffing, by about 435,000 jobs. But he never got a civil service reform effort off the ground.
Arlington, Va.: I don't claim to have the answer to proper implementation, but this DoD personnel change looks like an opportunity for the hard workers. As far as managers making unbiased decisions in pay awards, maybe the support from above will have the greatest influence. Also, supervisors need an understanding that giving to the most deserved and getting grievances from slackers is better than treating everyone the same, regardless of the difference in efforts.
Stephen Barr: That's a feeling shared among some members of Congress and reform-minded experts. Good to hear you think this will provide rewards for the hard workers.
Wyoming: I see pay-for-performance as another opportunity for those currently in managerial positions to throw their subjective weight around. Just who will gain through pay banding? Can those who have reached the top step of their grade level get a performance benefit with this concept? Would anyone be able to demand it?
Instead of concentrating on this aspect of overhauling the system, what about those that have no opportunity for upward mobility, unless they move inside the beltway?
In my case, with politics hovering over the Western states as it is, you'd think more emphasis would be given to providing us "long-in-the-saddle-but-highly-dedicated-producers" another look, and try to keep institutional memory in place while we elders train the next generation of employees.
Or at least offer those in the Interior Department across-the-board buyouts to get us out of here, so this administration can keep putting in contractors to replace us, and fill in the other gaps with their cronies' sons and daughters.
Stephen Barr: Pay bands will allow managers to give salary increases more quickly to people, I think. Persons at the top will no doubt feel squeezed, but the top of the band will likely expand and they may get more compensation in the form of bonuses. Advocates also think the changes will help them retain experienced hands. Defense and NASA, for example, worry that too many will leave in the retirement bow wave and want to hang onto folks to play the role of mentor to new hires. Defense even wants to bring back retirees, with no financial penalty, to help out and avoid a knowledge drain.
Arlington, Va.: Inspector General Agencies audit themselves. For example, on department's IG (like USDA-IG) will perform audits on another department's IG (like DoE-IG). It's how DoDIG was caught last year fabricating audit results and lost it's accreditation.
Stephen Barr: Thanks for making this point.
Silver Spring, Md.: Good morning Mr. Barr,
Well, I too would like to weigh in on the issues today, but mine involve the A-76 process.
My husband is a contractor, and he is very well-paid, and is given money for not using the health insurance that his company would provide (I'm the fed, I carry it). He is given automatic raises with the contract renewal. He still works with people who should be thrown out on their butts, and who are paid more than their fed counterparts.
Now me, I'm paid less than him despite having a degree, I'm a "Code Red" designated employee (-snort- If there's a mushroom cloud on the horizon, I'm NOT going in!), I get top marks for being an outstanding employee, but my job may go to the outside world for no other reason than it would make some appointee look good.
I wonder who is going to get a bonus. Me? Or the sycophant?
Stephen Barr: Actually, I think the contractor issue is part-and-parcel of the reform debate. I was pleasantly surprised yesterday to hear the chief of naval operations tell lawmakers that some Navy work should be brought back inside the government. The A-76 process is difficult--and I've no good answers on it. But your description is priceless. Thanks for sharing it.
Alexandria, Va.: Stephen,
My biggest concern with the DoD pay system is that the money for incentives/raises can be taken away by DoD to pay for other items (example, Bush's freeze on the locality pay raise in January to help pay for the War on Terror). What does the language say about establishing pay pools every year? Is there discretion for DoD to change the size of the pool from year to year?
Stephen Barr: Good points. It is hard to see how the Pentagon can make this work without spending more money on payroll. While I've read the Federal Register notice, I can't say that I completely understand the proposed pay pool system, so I'll pass on commenting.
Jacksonville, Fla.: Stephen,
The DoD organization I work for went through an A-76 study and we were awarded the MEO after no bids were received by the commercial sector. We thought everything was okay, until DoD issued their transformation initiatives which calls for the divestiture of our organization during FY04 -- FY05. How can they outsource our organization after we already competed and won an A-76 study in 2002?
Stephen Barr: Sorry, but I don't know. Defense is in the midst of sorting out what is "core" and what is "non-core." If you fall into the latter, your days may be numbered. But you speak to a larger issue--which is that Defense is not doing a good enough job of explaining policy and implications to employees. Without communication, how do you build trust?
Stafford, Va.: Arlington, Va., nice thoughts but have you ever worked for DOD as a civilian. Ever lost a performance award because your organization couldn't manage their budget and was running a deficit by April 1? Happened to me twice. Or had a supervisor who gave out cash awards to her subordinates that didn't get outstandings whether they deserved it or not? Or suffered monetarily because your director is an attorney and he/she favors the attorneys and judges? I have 16 years of otustandings in 16 years of government service. I have no faith in that fool Rumsfeld. Go back to Haliburton, sir!
Stephen Barr: This goes back to the issue of selecting and training managers. Too many employees have bad experiences, it seems.
Washington, D.C.: I have several friends who work at NOAA. They have no complaints about the paybanding system there. The same fears were raised at first but the implementation seems to have gone well.
Stephen Barr: A report published on Defense labs by OPM last year seems to indicate that employee comfort levels with pay banding grow as they learn how it works. That usually takes about five years, if I read the OPM report correctly. Still, only 55 percent of employees in the DOD labs seem satisfied, overall, with their demonstration project and pay changes. Is that good enough?
Mt. Rainier, Md.: At my little agency (3,000 and down), we are getting our new CIO. He is not even officially employed here yet and is already checking out the Oracle software he is going to get to replace our 'bad' software. Well, no, he doesn't know what we have, but it must be bad right? because we're government and don't have the most expensive stuff. They want to run us like a business -- Enron.
Stephen Barr: New bosses too often like change for the sake of change. If you truly believe this is wasteful, send a letter to Mark A. Forman at the Office of Management and Budget. He's the tech policy guy and he's trying to bring some common sense to federal IT practices. Best of luck!
Alexandria, Va.: Regarding DoD "personnel reform": I've worked in the Federal government HR field for almost 20 years, and I am SO tired of every new administration coming into office, and thinking things are "broken" in the administration of the civil service and they have to make a big show of "fixing" them. Because they come in from the outside, and must know better than people who've worked in the system for many years.
I think the Carter administration Civil Service Reform, spearheaded by professional public administrator Scotty Campbell, was an excellent package, put together with a lot of thought and great political savvy (unlike so much else that happened during the Carter Administration). I think it has served the government well. The one facet that everyone agreed didn't work -- the "merit pay", pay-for-performance system replacing step increases -- was quickly corrected by the Congress.
I think most things in the current HR system work pretty well. Pay banding might be OK, but I don't think the current GS system is broken, so why go through the hassle and cost of changing to something new for its own sake?
In my agency's union agreement, there is a mandatory connection between performance awards and "outstanding" performance appraisals -- a version of pay for performance. But you know what? It doesn't improve performance. Instead, it increases the pressure on first and second line management to give employees higher ratings, and increases grievances on ratings, which take time to resolve.
Sometimes, administrations have to accept that someone before them knew what they were doing, and not be out to aggrandize themselves by leaving a "legacy" they can take credit for.
Stephen Barr: Thank you. An excellent summary of where we are. Setting standards for and then measuring employee performance is more art than science, in my view. But there's a great clamor for pay banding among the policy wonks and the Bush appointees. Fasten your seat belts.
Washington, D.C.: Is the 55 percent satisfaction rate higher than under the previous system? It's all a learning curve. If it went up -- they can look to see what needs more work and try to get it higher. But they need to go to the employees to identify what needs to change. The Bush administration has a terrible track record in that arena.
Stephen Barr: Don't know. The OPM study suggests that about 65 percent would be the appropriate benchmark for success. I don't know if you can generalize about demonstration projects. At yesterday's hearing, Defense officials pointed to a base where 98 percent of the employees supported pay changes and said the local union had agreed to continue pay for performance in its next contract. Clearly, it can work on the small scale. But can you scale it up for a diverse workforce with lots of different jobs, etc.?
Arlington, Va.: Have you (or anyone listening) figured out how the Special Rate Settlement awards were determined? I read the NTEU Web site and I received an award. But my records don't match the information the settlement folks say they got from OPM.
Stephen Barr: There must be some sort of appeal mechanism or explanation that you can seek. The union's main number is 202 572 5500. If you have not contacted them directly, I think it's worth giving them a call.
North Carolina: Just wanted to say that I FINALLY received a preliminary estimate regarding the "Special Rates" back pay. Amazing. Of course I won't spend it until I see it, but it looks like after all these years it's coming near fruition. And I wasn't sure that I fit into the category that would actually get any money at all. But, I will do my part of the economy when the check finally comes!
Stephen Barr: That's terrific. Lots of Diary readers have been eagerly awaiting this settlement. Amazing to think this all began in the Reagan administration and is now at the pay-off stage. Have fun spending those extra dollars!
Once again, we've run out of time. Thanks for making this a lively discussion, and thanks for taking time to read this transcript. We'll see you back here at noon next Wednesday.
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