The new chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), signaled yesterday that she is open to revamping the federal pay system if it will help the government build a higher-quality workforce.
"I think there are opportunities to modernize the civil service laws in a way that will be advantageous to federal employees and to the service that they provide the public," Collins said in an interview.
She pointed out that "it's been decades since there has been a fundamental change in how we pay federal employees," but that several agencies have moved away from the 15-grade General Schedule to alternative pay systems, such as broad salary ranges, and have developed new ways to evaluate job performance. "That is the direction we need to be moving in," she said.
Collins has spent her opening month as committee chairman engulfed in confirmation hearings for appointees to the new Department of Homeland Security, which opens today. She said she is still putting together an agenda for the committee but noted that tentative plans call for reorganizing some of its operations.
Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who has an interest in the federal workplace based on his years in state and city government, will take the lead on developing any civil service reforms, Collins said. He will head a subcommittee that oversees government management and some civil service issues, she said.
Oversight of postal issues will be pulled up to the full committee, Collins said. Of particular interest, she said, are financial problems facing the U.S. Postal Service, pressures to raise postal rates, and midyear recommendations from a White House commission on revamping postal operations.
Unlike many senators, Collins noted that she has worked alongside federal employees and has "some direct experience with civil service laws." In 1992 and 1993, she served as the New England administrator of the Small Business Administration.
"Through that experience, I have a great respect for the federal workforce," she said. "But I also felt the frustration of a manager who was unable to reward appropriately really outstanding performance by employees. . . . I also faced the frustration, in one case, with the difficulty of dealing with an employee who was not performing."
Improving the federal workforce, Collins said, "means paying better than we do now," addressing so-called pay compression in the Senior Executive Service, and "giving managers more flexibility, and those are some of the issues that I am going to be looking at."
Collins said she has met with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the new chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who has called for hearings on overhauling the federal pay system. "I think you will see a closer relationship between the Senate and House chairmen than has been historically the case," Collins said.
Many federal employees are wary of attempts to change the pay system, which provides an annual raise usually negotiated by Congress and the White House, in part because they fear alternative systems cannot be fairly administered. Collins said she would "very much welcome" views and ideas from employees on revamping personnel practices.
About 190,000 employees may see some pay and personnel policy changes next year, once the new Department of Homeland Security completes its transition. Congress granted significant leeway to the Bush administration to revamp pay and personnel rules for employees who are transferring from 22 agencies.
While she "will obviously keep a close eye" on the new department, Collins said she saw no need to wait and see how the homeland pay and personnel policy changes play out there before moving ahead on government-wide workforce issues.
"The time for study is pretty well done, and the time for action is upon us," she said. "I think we should continue to pursue this and not wait to see the results of the Homeland Security Department moves in this area."
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William Hansen, the Education Department deputy secretary, will be the guest on "The Business of Government Hour" at 8 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).
"Does Diversity Include White Employees?" will be the topic for discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).
Stephen Barr's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.