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Federal Diary
Federal Diary Live
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Federal Diary Live
With Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 04, 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.

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: Thanks to all of you joining this online discussion forum today. I've just returned from a Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearing that featured Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and other Defense officials who are seeking to overhaul the department's work and pay rules for civil service employees. Based on the questioning from senators, it seems likely that Rumsfeld will not get all that he is seeking. But he will still get a lot from Congress, it appears, including the right to set aside the General Schedule and move employees into a pay-for-performance system. I've been focusing on this issue, in part because I think once it is approved, the changes will likely spill over into the rest of the government. With that said, let's move to your questions and comments. Again, thanks for joining us today.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Sir;
Just read your June 4 article on the pay-for-performance issue.
Here is a good reason why this should be shot down.
I work on a "team" of 12 people. The team is essentially broken down into "Team Bonus" and "Team Non Bonus." Unfortunately this has been going on for at least three years and it starts from the top, GS-14 level and has precipitated down to the GS-13 level, or to the two people directly responsible for the day to day operation of our section. As is implied by "TB" and "TNB", all performances bonuses at the end of the year go to those on TB. Ironically enough it is a year long effort to basically kiss ass to get that cash after one receives his/her performance rating. The worst part about "TB" and "TNB" is that it applies to office supplies, travel and Christmas presents. Some get expensive gifts, others get candy bars and some get nothing. Speak nothing of morale, and mention nothing about the ability to rectify the situation. Hopeless is not even an appropriate word.
So, here I am. I have received four "outstanding" ratings in the last four years. I got my only award four years ago and it was a token $250. Obviously, you can see that not only myself and five others are really behind the eight ball if this thing goes forward. Mr. Rumsfeld says that "basic safeguards are preserved in every instance". I doubt it. I doubt if we will ever get out of the dilemma we are in and I would love to know his answer especially since he is really not familiar with issues at the working level. Yes, the level where the workers work who set the tone for the "win" in Iraq.

Thanks

washingtonpost.com: Pentagon May Like Pay-for-Performance System More Than Workers Do (Post, June 4)

Stephen Barr: Thanks for providing your vantage point. Many employees I hear from express similar concern that performance-based systems breed favoritism and wreck morale. An OPM review of Defense demonstration projects found it takes about five years to win broad-based employee support for pay and personnel management changes. But I fear we don't have enough data on managers--how they make decisions and how well they are trained to run fair-minded systems. That seems to be the key, to me. And you are absolutely right--there is a huge knowledge gap between what Washington thinks and what's reality in the field. I even plead guilty to that one. Any help all of you can give me in these forums to grasp what's important can only help me in my writing.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: We were briefed by personnel about the new DOD pay system and were told that although we may no longer get COLA, step increases, etc. our base pay would never decrease. However, in today's column you write: "The pay of employees judged to be poor performers could even be lowered." These two statements seem to contradict. Can you clarify?

Stephen Barr: There is a good deal of confusion on the details, and your best source of information is the April 2 Federal Register notice that starts on page 16119, Vol. 68, No. 63.

The notice says that employees who fail to score 51 on a 100-point scale and do not improve their score "may not remain at their current salary and may be reduced in pay, pay band level or removed from federal service." Reductions in salary "will be up to 5 percent of base pay," the notice says.

Pentagon officials have testified that the new personnel system they plan to create will be modeled after the "best practices" outlined in the Register notice.

As a practical matter, it seems that only a tiny number of employees would ever face a pay reduction. Defense officials prefer to talk about the proposed system as actually putting people on a "fast track" through pay bands to give them higher salaries without having to go to the trouble to formally change their job description or even put their job up for a posting. So, for the vast majority, the issue is what size of pay raises will they receive, not whether their base pay is cut.

At the same time, it's clear to me that the Rumsfeld team wants to shake up the civil service and trim the deadwood. At today's hearing, they said they want to make the civil service more like the military in terms of responsiveness and ability to transfer people to new jobs.

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Arlington, Va.: How come SECDEF hasn't addressed employee concerns about the new pay system? No "All Hands Meeting" yet! Come on Don, we aren't military. Are you scared to address DOD civilian employees. Chicken. I tell you to face I don't trust you and I don't trust my bosses to implement the new system fairly!
Oh, well there goes my bonus!

A DOD adjudicator

Stephen Barr: That's a bit harsh. Rumsfeld doesn't seem to be afraid of anyone and he certainly won't be reluctant to make bigtime changes at Defense if given a free hand.

He still faces a lot of negotiations on Capitol Hill about how much leeway he will receive, but it seems clear that Congress will give him the same powers that it granted Tom Ridge for Homeland Security employees last year.

You're more to the point about the issue of trust. I've yet to hear Defense officials address the issue, probably the most important factor in determining whether the new system will ever work as intended.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: Good morning. First I want to say that your column is one of the first things that I look at in the morning, it lets me know what's happening in Washington. My question is, the Defense proposal appears to have a provision for appeal, in cases where the worker doesn't agree with a supervisor's decision. Do you think that this could nullify any advantages to a new pay system, as anyone who doesn't get the best possible raise or incentive pay could clog the system with appeals?

Stephen Barr: Defense does not want a system that gets burdened by a backlog of appeals, so expect to see them push for as streamlined a system as can be created. The Senate bill would allow Defense to handle employee complaints internally, but would give employees the right to appeal any adverse decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board. MSPB would act like an appeals court, essentially.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Steve,

In today's Federal Page, Rumsfeld says he wants to "shift as many as 320,000 military personnel out of jobs that civilians could do, which officials say would reduce the department's reliance on private contractors." Huh? Isn't that exactly the opposite of what OMB's contracting out initiative is trying to do? How come Donald Rumsfeld is going to get what he wants while the rest of the civil service is being treated like pariahs by the Bush White House?

Stephen Barr: A most interesting question. Rumsfeld testified today that he has 320,000 jobs performed by military personnel that should be done by civilians. He indicates that most of the jobs ought to be turned over to the civil service. But he makes no promise. Defense is trying to sort out what are "core" and "non-core" jobs, and that determination will likely turn more work over to contractors. So you are right; it is hard to predict who suffers a net loss and who gets the gain.

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Washington, D.C.: Every administration comes up with great sounding ways to "improve" the federal workforce. Pay for performance has been around for a while, but the Bush Administration seems set on implementing it. My question: is there a specific definition for the term, pay for performance?

Stephen Barr: Superb question. I don't think there is a single definition for pay for performance. It's a term used to describe a personnel system that relies on job performance evaluations of individuals to shape pay decisions--how big an annual raise, a raise or a bonus, or just a bonus. In theory, the performance management system should be designed to meet the needs of the agency component and take into account employee skills and experience. So criteria for judging employees could vary from place to place, and, to some degree, would be subjective.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Why hasn't Rumsfeld suggested that the military put their Jan COLA and time in service pay raises in a pot (yes, the military gets pay raises just for staying in the military) to be "fairly" distributed. If he really was doing this for efficiency, why doesn't he do it to those he already has control over, the military.

Stephen Barr: Good point. As I understand it, military personnel receive a minimum pay raise each year, but some grades receive a higher raise based on retention and skill factors.

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Salisbury, Md.: Do you sense that things will move rather quickly on the Pentagon's push to increase outsourcing? At NASA (Wallops Island) in the 1980s the government workforce was around 2800. Now it is less than half of that (the delta are contractors).

There is a strong push to outsource everything (Info Sys, Engr, Construction, Facilities Maint, Funds Programming...) and I can visualize this place being about 98 percent outsourced in the future.

Stephen Barr: Difficult to predict. The recent A-76 revisions should speed up outsourcing, so I would tend to believe that the Pentagon will step up the pace. But some officials are uncomfortable with widespread privatization. At today's hearing, for example, Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, said the Navy has 200,000 civil service employees and 234,000 contract employees. The trick, he seemed to say, is in finding the right balance in the workforce. But the White House wants more "competitive sourcing," so I would think you will see more.

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Alexandria, Va.: I do not trust the President or the SECDEF on pay. The president froze the 1 percent locality pay raise this January on the basis that the money was needed to fight the war on terror. The last thing I want is to have my entire compensation (step increases, GS raises, locality raises) in the hands of Bush and Rumsfeld. These are the dum dums that hang out with Richard Perle (he of the $700K contract to "explain" the Government's position to Global Crossing--please, I can "explain" the Government's requirements to plenty of companies for a lot less than $700K).

Stephen Barr: Actually, your compensation will likely be in the hands of your supervisor and his boss. Do you trust them? To me, that's the more important consideration.

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Washington, D.C.: Steve,

I work for the State Department. I am a Foreign Service Specialist. We as FS have a kind of pay for performance system. We compete for promotion every year with our colleagues. We are ranked based on our performance reports and have basic precepts that have to be followed. It is a fairly good system but even then it has flaws and the best and brightest don't get promoted as often as they should. However, it does in many cases weed out some poor performers or prod them to become better. From what I have heard the FS won't be switching to a Pay for performance system in the near future because it has taken us many years to work the kinks out of the one we have. Have you heard anything different?

Stephen Barr: No. I have not heard anything different, and have heard no real complaints about the Foreign Service system. It is, for lack of a better phrase, an up or out system. A key, it seems to me, is that the State Department does a pretty good job of informing job applicants up front what they are getting into. I'm not sure that's the case in all other departments. State also provides rotational and other developmental assignments, which are not common at many other agencies.

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Washington, D.C.: Stephen you brought up a thought -- if the pay systems changed who will decide on who gets what in terms of bonus pool money and performance pay raises? Would it be my supervisor or farther up the feeding chain? Would the bonus pool be based on relative size or importance?

Stephen Barr: The initial decision is made by the front-line supervisor, subject to review by a higher official or an agency panel.

It is an open question where the money for the performance pool comes from. The Pentagon is proposing to take all the money from the January across-the-board raise, plus money for within-grade raises, and throw all that into the pool. However, locality adjustments would still be given on the current basis (don't ask me why this exception!). In many pay for performance models, only the within-grade raise is used to feed the pay pool. This then leads to complaints that there is insufficient money to reward performance. However, including the across-the-board raise increases the chances of people being hurt if they get a low performance score or if the boss plays favorites.

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Memphis, Tenn.: Mr. Barr: I respect your knowledge of the Fed. government, however, I believe you are naive when you say that an employee's raise will be in the hands of said employee's supervisor. My experience is that only an "x" amount of outstandings are allowed, regardless of the work done by a group of employees. I have no doubt that if pay for performance is instituted at all agencies, there will always be some White House emergency that can't fully and properly fund pay for performance.

Stephen Barr: A very good point. I think some Defense employees fear that without congressional controls, the Pentagon could declare an emergency and divert money intended for salaries into a weapons program, a military shortage or some other crisis. Probably would not happen, but many employees worry that honest-to-goodness pay for performance will get shortchanged and not properly funded.

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Frederick, Md.: Our office prepared and sent comments to the Federal Register regarding our concerns with the new system. Have the comments been published or addressed anywhere?

Stephen Barr: The Defense notice only had a 30-day comment period. I have not seen them published or posted. Typically, the final rule includes a section that describes the kinds of comments and recommendations that were made.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Do I trust my boss? You have never worked for the government. I don't trust my bosses bosses boss. But whatever that person wants, like money to give his entire staff a 20 percent raise, the lower bosses will be forced to implement.

Stephen Barr: Right. I've never worked in the civil service; only a short stint in the Army. Your sentiment is a common one.

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Northwest Washington, D.C.: Re: pay for performance and loyalty rewards in the Federal sector -- I work in private industry where the professionals pull down $500,000 plus bennies each year. I am support staff; after 15 years of loyalty, hard work, last minute overtime and ulcers my "loyalty" pay is a reward of $200. That averages out to about $1.08 per week. How's that for an insult? Stop whining, Feds, it's no better out here.

Stephen Barr: Well, we've never pretended the private sector is built around "merit principles" enshrined in law. (Hmmm... come to think of it... where is that $500,000 job?)

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Dayton, Ohio: The military has its own pay for performance system. In the AF 15 percent of the Captains with satisfactory performance will be fired when they fail to be promoted to Major. It goes to 50 percent for the promotion to Colonel. Don't whine.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that perspective.

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Beltsville, Md.: Do you know what the status is of the bill which would provide six weeks (I believe) of paid time off for maternity? I want to start a campaign against this. As a Federal worker, I can't say enough how good our benefits package is, and I am truly disappointed with Hoyer for going forward with this again. It's time to stop the waste in the Federal government, employees need to better manage the leave and benefits they get. We have people using their leave as fast as they get it and then begging for more.

Stephen Barr: The bill was introduced, but has not moved. OPM does not think paid parental leave is a benefit that should be offered at this time.

You raise a good point. But young federal employees tell me they don't have enough time to cope with unexpected child-care situations and other family issues.

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Washington, D.C.: Why with the excellent health programs should any retired person sign up for Medicare part B?

Stephen Barr: Medicare Part B does cover some things that are not a part of FEHBP. Part B steps in as the first payer.

Medicare covers some orthopedic devices, medical equipment, home health care, chiropractic services and medical supplies that FEHBP may not cover fully, if at all.

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Herndon, Va.: I worked for the federal government from 1976 - 1983, and left to pursue employment in the private sector. At age 45, I am now considering returning to federal employment. Would I be eligible to enroll in the old Civil Service retirement system? If yes, what is the least number of years I would have to work before retirement eligibility?

Stephen Barr: No. Your options are CSRS Offset or FERS.

Assuming you did not take a refund of what you paid into the retirement system when you left, you would become eligible for retirement under the standard years of service and age combinations. Let me know where you land!

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Bethesda, Md.: You know, reading your chat makes me realize how awesome my boss and my agency is. I would actually trust my boss and his boss with pay for performance.

Stephen Barr: That's good to hear. Much of this debate plays out around the edges and in the extremes, while most of us work in more comfortable and reasonable circumstances.

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Beltsville, Md.: I'm not sure why they don't have time to cope with unexpected childcare situations. Many of us long-term Federal workers have done it and still have leave to burn. They need to stop begging for more benefits and use the ones they have appropriately. Heck, they didn't have leave banks and donor programs which could be used for maternity reasons back when I had my children. I saved up my leave.

Stephen, by the way, you do a terrific job! Keep it up!

Stephen Barr: You get the last word, and thanks for the kind words!

Once again, we've run out of time for today's discussion. Thanks to all of you who joined in, and all of you who take the time to read this transcript. See you at noon next Wednesday!

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