The May 13 Federal Diary column incorrectly described a proposed compensation change at the General Accounting Office. Once a new pay and classification system begins, most GAO employees who are meeting job expectations will receive annual pay adjustment in two parts: a raise linked to inflation and a raise that would vary depending on job performance. (Published 5/14/04)

The General Accounting Office, which often advises the executive branch to be more transparent in its dealings with federal employees, is trying to lead by example.

Comptroller General David M. Walker, the head of the GAO, is launching a compensation and classification review that he hopes will provide "equal pay for work of equal value over time" and also help the GAO control payroll costs in lean budget times.

The GAO effort should be instructive for such giant departments as Defense and Homeland Security, which plan to transfer employees out of the 15-grade General Schedule over the next few years into so-called pay bands that emphasize the importance of job performance.

If the GAO experience can be taken as a guide, the efforts at Defense and Homeland Security will take persistence and patience, on everyone's part. The GAO has used pay bands for most of its 3,200 employees since the 1980s and, under Walker, continues to refine its pay and job rating systems.

Walker's initiative has been evolving over the last year and is still not settled. But the effort has evoked mixed feelings among GAO staff members and underscores the difficulties in communicating and selling ideas that influence pay and benefits.

At the start, Walker suggested splitting the agency's middle pay band, Band II, to sort out analysts based on their responsibilities. In Washington, where about 75 percent of GAO analysts work, salaries in Band II range from $72,282 to $110,876.

That pay band includes employees who serve as project leaders and employees who serve as staff on the projects. Some project leaders take on high-risk studies, and some have more modest duties, such as coordinating paperwork.

In general, people in Band II who have been at the GAO a long time are paid close to the top of the band. That means that some staff members are paid more than their project leader.

But figuring out how to split the pay band proved tricky. Some employees agreed with Walker's notion that analysts in charge of projects should be paid more because they are probably working harder than the rest of the team. But other employees saw the proposal as unfair, because they had always worked in a team culture where bringing knowledge to the table represented a valuable contribution or because they work in the field and have had fewer chances to compete for a leadership position.

In a recent interview and in a televised talk with employees, Walker said staff comments and other information have prompted him to look beyond Band II to the agency's overall approach to compensation.

The GAO plans to hire an outside compensation consultant this summer to compare GAO pay with that of the private sector, nonprofits and other federal agencies. The consultant's survey will include all categories of GAO employees, including support and technical staffs.

Walker will use the survey's findings and an in-house job classification review to come up with a plan for employees to review, perhaps in November.

The review may lead the GAO to redraw the lines for the agency's three pay bands and possibly set new pay caps for each band. The start of next year would be the earliest a new compensation system might be put in place.

Regardless of how the review turns out, no GAO employee will take a cut in pay and all employees will receive an adjustment to keep pace with inflation each year, Walker said.

But he indicated that some employees, depending on their job and where salary lines are drawn, might not get the standard general increase provided federal employees by Congress -- a break with past practice at the congressional agency.

Compensation accounts for 81 percent of the GAO's budget, and Walker said devising a new pay system for the GAO will help ensure adequate funds for training and technology in lean budget years.

In developing new workplace systems, Walker said he will adhere to key principles that ensure changes are reasonable and affordable and result in equal pay for work of equal value. In turn, he said, the GAO will guard against any changes that could hinder recruitment and retention of employees or endanger the GAO's ability to continue providing high-quality services to Congress.

"This is probably the most significant thing that we do internally," Walker told the employees. He said he remains open to more feedback from the GAO staff. "I am absolutely committed . . . to fully consider comments and concerns we get from employees."

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com