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Washington’s using less than a percent of the power it has to boost federal tech pay


File: The administrative building of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Under U.S. law, federal agencies are allowed to pay above and beyond normal salary rates for would-be employees who are extraordinarily talented, especially in the fields of science and technology. So-called Critical Position Pay Authority was used, for example, to bump the 2011 salary of the director of the National Institutes of Health -- a geneticist who is both a best-selling author and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- from $155,000 to just shy of $200,000.

A recent report by the Institute for Defense Analyses examines why CCPA isn't used more often. Created by Congress in 1990, the authority was meant to address a worrisome and widening gap between federal and private sector salaries that was seen as an obstacle to creating a healthy federal science and technology workforce. Researchers at IDA, under a contract with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, examined data from 2011, the last year numbers were available.

The law today provides for 800 job slots eligible for higher pay because they are deemed essential to "the accomplishment of an important agency mission," as the U.S. Office of Personnel Management describes it.

Of those 800 eligible slots for federal employees with "extremely high level[s] of expertise," finds the researchers, just three were being used. In the nearly quarter century since critical position pay was established government-wide, in fact, it has been used by just eight agencies for a total of 34 times.

Why is the authority to upgrade federal salaries commensurate with technological and scientific expertise being tapped so rarely? "The most likely reasons why CPPA is not being used more often by agencies," reads the report, "are a lack of knowledge and training among human capital officials and hiring managers regarding the CPPA, restrictions of the current regulatory framework, the availability of alternative pay authorities, and agency cultures that impede its use."

Federal hiring managers have other ways of increasing base pay for highly-desired workers, but the CPPA is a particularly powerful tool. It provides a base pay cap of $201,700, as of this March, while the next highest federal government-wide pay rate for scientific or professional positions is $181,500. While those rates are not, for many positions, comparable to what a highly-skilled employee might receive in the private sector, the added salary does provide a bit of extra incentive for those considering public service.

IDA found that the number of times the critical pay authority has been used in the last two-plus decades is even less impressive than it might appear at first -- some 70 percent of those 34 uses were by the FBI alone.

Other agencies have dipped their toes into the CPPA pool but have stopped short of actually using the authority. The report cites the National Security Agency, which explored making use of the tool for the hiring of three jobs, for which "no more than two dozen individuals nationwide might be suitable candidates." Those jobs were were the Chief Technology Officer, the Chief Information Officer, and the Director of Research for the NSA. But in the end, finds the report, the agency opted to hire internally, choosing candidates who were "willing to accept the positions' 'normal' salary levels."

In 2011, the researchers found, the Critical Position Pay Authority was used to pay a premium for three jobs in government: in addition to the directorship of the NIH, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and the role of senior actuary for health programs at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Some hiring managers, the report found, find that other special salary incentives are a bit easier to use than the oft-confusing CPPA process. Federal hiring personnel were particularly unclear as to whether they must first actively recruit candidates at the normal base pay rate before they might justify to the Office of Personnel Management their request for the boosted salary authority. And they worry that asking for the authority might slow down the already-slow federal hiring process. But the IDA report found one additional reason that agencies not using critical pay authority, one that suggests it will take more than clarified guidance to increase the tool's adoption. The researchers quote one hiring manager on why his or her agency errs on the side of not asking for higher pay rates:

"[Our agency] is reticent to use the authority since we are generally very risk averse to using authorities that could later put [the agency] in a bad light. Incidents in the past have hindered our ability to use certain authorities, for instance, [sic] hiring bonuses were published and that became negatively viewed by the agency."

As the federal government works to expand its ranks of technologists, it's worth keeping in mind that at least some of the mechanisms for doing that are already in place, even if they're not very well known. But that might change. In May, Katherine Archuleta, the director of the Office of Personnel Management testified before Congress that, "Agencies have a number of existing pay and leave flexibilities at their disposal that can be used to recruit and retain cyber personnel," adding, "OPM is ready to work with agencies to consider providing special rates or critical position pay."

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.



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