(Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

We asked federal workers in a survey last week how they would feel about the government transitioning to a merit-based pay system in which they would only receive raises for performing above expectations.

The Partnership for Public Service proposed a similar plan in a report this month, calling for a federal pay system that would compensate workers at a level on par with their cohorts in the private sector, with extra pay for only those who perform above expectations. Federal-worker unions have opposed the plan, saying the current pay system has served the nation well.

The federal government has experimented with pay-for-performance programs in the past, particularly with the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System, which Congress canceled in 2009. The program failed in part because employees did not trust that it would work fairly, according to unions and other federal-worker groups.

MORE: Report on civil service reform includes controversial recommendations

Many of our survey respondents expressed similar reservations about the idea of merit-based pay. “Everything in the [government] is done by political/personal relationships; it will never work,” wrote Brian Gerson, a Department of Homeland Security employee from Columbus, Ohio.

Bill Asch, a National Institutes of Health employee from Seattle, had similar doubts “[Merit systems] are easily gamed by ‘connected’ people,” he said. “Sounds good in theory, but like most extremist ideas, impractical in the real world.”

Other respondents showed openness to the idea of a merit-based pay system.

“I like the idea of limiting pay raises to high performers,” said Ken Ambrose, a Health and Human Services worker from Rockville, Md. “I also think that the [General Schedule] scale is a good area for reform. Different types of workers should be paid different amount in order for the government to hire competitive applicants.”

Peter Gamba, a Treasury Department employee from Harpers Ferry, W.V., also expressed support. “I see many workers just collecting a paycheck,” he said.

Lynn Miller, a Housing and Urban Development employee from Beallsville, Md., took the middle position, saying she likes the idea of merit-based raises but doubts her agency could administer them fairly.

“I think merit based pay raises would be great – if they could be allocated fairly – meaning that they really went to meritorious individuals,” she said. “However, the management structure here at HUD is not competent enough to accomplish this, in my opinion.”

Federal employees can still respond to our survey below. We’ll continue to use the responses in coming days as we explore other topics, including their political appointments and workers’ top priorities for civil-service reform.

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