Yesterday's forum on the future of the civil service offered a good chuckle but little sign of compromise between union leaders and the Bush administration.
The round of laughter came moments after moderator Patricia McGinnis observed that "there is not a great deal of trust in this conversation." Clay Johnson III, a top presidential deputy, leaned over the arm of his chair to hug Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Kelley's rejoinder was a mock plea to turn off the cameras.
There was little humor, however, over the most contentious issues raised by the administration's plans to overhaul pay systems at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security and to apply some of the concepts to the rest of the government.
McGinnis, president of the nonprofit Council for Excellence in Government, tried to steer the discussion toward possible ways of bridging differences on the panel, whose other members were John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office.
The NTEU has led an effort to block the new labor-management rules at Homeland Security, prevailing in the first round of court battles. AFGE and other unions have announced plans to file a lawsuit against the Pentagon over a regulation, issued Oct. 26, that would limit collective bargaining rights at the Defense Department.
The litigation and the outrage among union activists seem likely to delay, if not stop, congressional action on another administration initiative: replacing the General Schedule across government with a performance-based pay system by 2010. The government-wide initiative, outlined in a draft bill, also would strengthen management rights and limit collective bargaining.
A government-wide overhaul of the civil service, especially in the area of compensation, is a long-sought goal of policy experts who contend that a performance-based pay system will make it easier for the government to hire top-notch talent and to discourage sub-par employees from hanging on to their jobs because of virtually guaranteed pay raises.
At yesterday's forum, sponsored by the council and The Washington Post, McGinnis suggested that the administration could take a more gradual approach to making its changes and should seek feedback in face-to-face discussions with employees, union representatives and others.
She pointed to recent congressional testimony by Walker proposing that the government-wide draft bill, the "Working for America Act," could be split into two parts. Under Walker's proposal, the administration could proceed with efforts to set up a performance-based pay system and leave for later the more difficult issue of how to revamp labor-management relations.
That kind of compromise, however, did not win an endorsement from Johnson yesterday, although he seemed to agree that trust is a problem for all sides.
"The tone is wrong," Johnson said. "The tone is bad."
But the key, Johnson contended, is to focus on improving the performance of agencies and employees. "We need to recognize [good performance] better," he said. "We need to expect it more everywhere. We need to invest in it. We need to reward it. . . . And to do that we need better performance evaluations; we need better communication between a manager and his or her employees about what the goals are, what the expectations are for different levels of performance."
Kelley and Gage questioned whether the administration's plans will have any credibility with rank-and-file employees, particularly if they think pay-for-performance standards are too vague or allow managers to play favorites with raises and bonuses.
"This threat of cronyism and patronage, I don't think it's a threat anymore. I think it's a promise," Gage said.
Listen, See and Read
To hear an excerpt from the civil service panel discussion, go to www.washingtonpost.com/audio.
To watch a video of the panel discussion, go to www.excelgov.org.
To read the Bush administration's proposal for replacing the General Schedule with a performance-based pay system by 2010, go to www.results.gov.
To find union views, go to www.afge.org and www.nteu.org.