It's a point David M. Walker, comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office, makes repeatedly when he testifies before congressional committees that oversee the federal workforce: "We strive to lead by example."

Since his arrival in November 1998, Walker has worked tirelessly to brand the GAO a model agency -- what he calls a world-class professional services organization -- that has a strategic plan, standards for judging job performance and salary scales that reward the best employees but also reflect the realities of the labor market.

Walker has used his position to help shape Bush administration policies on personnel management. He introduced the buzz phrase "human capital" to the federal government, as he did to the consulting world before coming to the GAO. Awkward as the term might be, Walker uses it to promote the idea that employees should be viewed as assets, valuable resources, not liabilities.

He regularly invokes his efforts to reorganize and reinvigorate the GAO when advising Congress on government-wide personnel policy and the progress of two large departments -- Homeland Security and Defense -- that are crafting plans to move their employees into performance-based systems.

Changes in how employees are paid and promoted are often the most sensitive issues that an agency head can tackle and, if bungled, can lower staff morale and productivity. A new study sponsored by IBM's Center for the Business of Government portrays Walker's changes as on the right track and suggests that Homeland Security, Defense and other agencies should pay more attention to the lessons learned at the GAO.

Although the GAO has a long history of experimentation with flexible personnel systems -- it began using "pay bands," or broad salary ranges, in 1989, for example -- one of the most dramatic changes came last year, when Congress exempted it from having to mirror the annual raises of the executive branch.

That change, sought by Walker, catapulted the agency into the vanguard of government efforts to use private-sector wage data to realign pay scales and put more weight on job performance in calculating salaries, raises and bonuses.

According to the IBM study, Walker's push for new pay practices has "caused some consternation and concern among GAO staff." Although Walker has made it clear that no employee will take a pay cut, some employees might see a slowdown in raises and some new hires could be paid less than the former starting rates, the study noted.

Although some employees are concerned about the pay changes, "nobody interviewed for this report complained about being underpaid; indeed, many staff said that the combination of interesting work and decent pay and benefits made GAO a very attractive place to be," the study said.

The study, by Jonathan Walters of Governing magazine and Charles Thompson, an IBM management consultant and former personnel research psychologist at the Office of Personnel Management, found five basic needs shared by all of government, based on the GAO's experience. They are the need:

* to move cautiously when pushing major personnel changes and to involve employees in the process.

* for sound workforce planning.

* for aggressive and efficient recruitment and retention practices.

* to strengthen procedures for selecting and training managers.

* for a fair, unbiased process for hearing employee appeals.

The study is available at

Even as Walker tries to shape the GAO into a model, it's important to note that it is different from most agencies. It is a part of Congress, not the executive branch, which is controlled by the White House. It is relatively small (3,200 employees), with most staff members clustered in specialized professions. It has a leader who serves a 15-year term, far longer than Cabinet chiefs.

And, in Walker, it has a leader who is committed to expanding performance-based pay across government and one who believes that complex management changes undertaken in small agencies can be scaled up and made to work in vast bureaucracies -- in short, in his words, changes that are "doable and desirable."