Administration unveils civil service plan

Draft legislation would do away with General Schedule pay system

The Bush administration released a draft version of civil service reform legislation last week, another major piece of its government transformation project.

In its current form, the Working for America Act of 2005 would phase out the General Schedule system, which the government has used for setting federal employees' pay and promotions. Occupation-based pay bands, each composed of four grades, would replace the pay schedule by 2010. The proposal would tie as much as 3 percent of workers' annual salary increases to some measure of worker performance.

Pay-banding would allow government salaries for high-demand occupations to better reflect market conditions on local and national levels, said Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management.

A recent annual Office of Personnel Management survey of the federal workforce shows that only 29 percent of workers say that differences in performance are meaningfully recognized.

The Defense and Homeland Security departments, which employ more than half of all federal workers, already use some form of a pay-for-performance system. But the administration's proposal would create reforms significantly less expansive than the ongoing changes at those departments, Johnson said.

"We don't have that same need for urgent reaction in a domestic agency" as in DOD and DHS, Johnson said. "Most of what's controversial about what exists in DOD and DHS does not exist in this reform package," including limitations on collective bargaining. But federal employee unions disagree.

"The broad pay proposal the administration wants to impose would largely mimic that which has been suggested for DHS," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, in a statement. "If basic federal pay is going to be changed, then unions need the right to bargain over pay."

For civil service reform to work, managers will need to be adequately trained to evaluate their workers, Johnson added. "Employees tell us that we're not very good managers of people," he said.

But congressional appropriators often cut training funding first, as they did recently in the House version of the DHS fiscal 2006 spending bill.

Ensuring that managers are well trained in performance evaluations has long been the Achilles' heel of civil service reform, said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "There are basic issues of trust here," he said. "The frontline workforce does not trust the management of their departments."

There's also the matter of trusting the administration, Light said. Federal workers "are just as dissatisfied with the current system as Clay Johnson, but they're nervous about the political agenda that might be hiding behind all of these wonderful words."

Bush administration officials decided to release the legislation to the public in draft form after the unauthorized disclosure of an earlier draft to the media in June. The current version incorporates comments from federal agency officials and is meant to encourage debate, Johnson said. They say they will wait to push the legislation in Congress until lawmakers have less on their agenda, he added. The goal is to have the proposal become law by January 2007, he said.

Personnel reform PART of bigger picture

The Working for America Act of 2005 is part of a handful of measures proposed by the Bush administration that seek to change the way government works. The Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) is one key element of those reforms, said Clay Johnson, below, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management.

Without the description of federal programs' goals required in PART examinations, agency managers could not accurately evaluate federal workers, Johnson said. "We're much closer to having at least reasonably good performance measures for our programs, which means we can hold the senior person of that program accountable, which means he or she can hold the direct reports accountable, and so forth," he said.

But linking PART statements to performance metrics would be a difficult task, said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. Agencies have already been formulating strategic goals for a decade under the Government Performance and Results Act with only uneven success in "converting mission goals into the kind of detailed strategic plans that could be converted into performance metrics," he said.

— David Perera

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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