Congress watches its own watchdog

Lawmakers probe employee complaints about GAO’s new personnel system

The Government Accountability Office, whose mission is to investigate the operations of federal agencies for Congress, now finds itself under lawmakers’ scrutiny. House and Senate subcommittees are investigating GAO’s performance-based pay system after receiving complaints about the system from increasing numbers of GAO employees.

“What we have uncovered provides the basis for some very considerable concerns,” said Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia Subcommittee. He spoke last week at a joint hearing of the House and Senate workforce subcommittees. 

With the Defense and Homeland Security departments trying to move to similar performance-based pay systems, lawmakers said GAO’s troubles don’t bode well for those agencies.

“What GAO was doing was supposed to demonstrate the success of the new compensation system,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “The fact is, GAO held itself out as being able to show that a [pay-for-performance] system could work. I don’t see how on the basis of what GAO has done and the reaction of its upper-tier employees...that this system should now be spread to other agencies without a great deal of more work.”

At the May 22 hearing, members focused on whether Comptroller General David Walker misled Congress in 2003 when he promised lawmakers that, under a merit-based compensation system, GAO employees would receive annual, cost-of-living pay adjustments unless they were performing poorly. The next year, Congress passed legislation that gave GAO broad authority to implement a new personnel management system.

As it turned out, 308 employees — about 10 percent of GAO’s workforce — did not receive pay increases in 2006, despite performing at a “meets expectations” level. They did not receive a raise because a compensation study determined that they were overpaid when their salaries were compared with market rates. That study, conducted by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, also concluded that 25 percent of the employees were underpaid, and they subsequently received pay raises.

GAO used the study to separate its analysts into new subdivisions of pay band II, effectively demoting a large portion of the GAO analyst workforce, said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia Subcommittee.

Walker defended the pay reforms as a “major accomplishment that was difficult to achieve,” but he acknowledged that there were “certain expectation and communication gaps” that occurred as the system was deployed.

“In late 2004, after we received the [Watson Wyatt] market-based pay study, we were faced with the reality that some of our employees were paid above market,” Walker told the panel. “This fact was not known in 2003. In retrospect, we should have advised the Congress that we did not view my prior statements as applying to employees who were paid above market levels.”
Norton and Walker, Round 1Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Comptroller General David Walker squared off over a recent move by employees at the Government Accountability Office to form a labor union.

At a joint hearing on GAO’s new employee management system, Norton said GAO’s personnel reforms could “hardly be called a success.”

“It was a kind of grand experiment in a new compensation system, and what that has gotten this agency is a union,” said Norton, a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia Subcommittee. “This was an agency, which unlike similar agencies, did not in fact have a union.”

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) filed a petition May 9 to hold a representation election after more than half of GAO’s 1,500 analysts signed cards requesting a vote for unionization.

When it was her turn to question Walker, Norton referred to GAO’s union. Walker quickly interrupted her and shot back: “We don’t have a union. We may not ever have a union.”

Norton told Walker that “enough cards have been filed to have an election, and I am further advised, although this is not public knowledge, that more than the majority of employees — if you want that on the record, here it is — have filed to have a union.”

Walker responded: “The fact is that a majority of certain employees have signed cards that would call for an election, a confidential ballot...as you know, signing that card does not mean they are going to vote for a union.”

Jamie Horwitz, an IFPTE spokesman, said he expected the union vote to take place within the next six weeks, unless GAO officials decide to challenge the petition. “Then it could drag on for a while,” he said.
 - Richard W. Walker

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