NSPS: anatomy of a failure

The ill-fated National Security Personnel System is the most high-profile attempt in recent years to move federal employees to a pay-for-performance system. The effort sputtered and failed over the course of three short years, from its implementation in 2006 to its repeal in 2009. The units that had moved to NSPS have been transitioning back to the General Schedule or other systems, such as the experimental Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratory, with a Jan. 1, 2012, deadline.

Why didn’t NSPS work? Our readers have offered some thoughts.

Several said moving from the GS system to NSPS allowed managers to promote their friends and overlook anyone who wasn’t in their inner circle.

“From what I saw in my organization under NSPS, actual performance had little, if anything, to do with the evaluations and subsequent pay increases,” one reader told us. “NSPS was a total failure because it did not provide what it promised for most of the people who worked under it.”

A reader named Ken Poyner recalled a similar experience. “Pay for performance did not work at my location due to rampant favoritism,” he wrote. “A very small subset of the well-connected reaped amazing raises during NSPS, while the value of NSPS shares went down to accommodate the greater resources passed to the inner circle. Pay for performance requires a fair and engaged management.”

Others pointed to the lack of clear, objective guidelines for measuring performance, which made the whole process subjective.

“NSPS was a poorly conceived and executed idea because it did not address the root issue,” wrote one reader who took that view.

Finally, some readers concluded that NSPS was a clear demonstration of why pay for performance will never work in the government.

“The role of the federal government does not lend itself to a pay-for-performance system,” one reader wrote. “NSPS invites in the type of corruption you see in other countries, and that is exactly what was happening under the failed NSPS experiment. The General [Schedule] system works very well for government. Government does not operate to make a profit, nor should it. If your principal goal in life is to make money, don't work for the government. Start a business and go for it and stop complaining.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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Reader comments

Wed, Aug 17, 2011 Vince

At its heart, NSPS took away automatic step increases for high-performing junior and mid-level employees -- those whom we are trying to retain in federal service -- in order to fund generous raises and bonuses for the high-performing senior, long serving people who will likely remain in federal service regardless. I fell into the latter category, and it broke my heart that I was competing against my own people for the same pot of money, and that the cards were stacked in my favor because raises and bonuses were based on percentages of salary, and my salary was a bunch higher than my subordinates; 6 percent of $40,000 is $2,400, whereas 6 percent of $80,000 is $4,800. The second crime of NSPS was that all pay actions were based on a percentage of initial salary upon entering the system. In the GS system, an entry-level employee is not in a strong negotiating position for salary because he or she wants/needs a job and has been selected out of many highly qualified candidates. The employee accepts starting terms, for example a GS-7, or GS-9, or 11, depending on education and experience ,to get a foot in the door, with the understanding that future promotions will keep them on equal footing with their cohorts. Under NSPS, if you poorly negotiated an entry-level starting salary, you were stuck with it the rest of our NSPS career, because there was no pay chart, only raises based on percentages of salary, with percentage limits when promoted. I had a top performing person who shot from GS-11 equivalent to GS-13 equivalent in 2 1/2 years, but because of percentage-pay issues, the individual's compensation was stuck down closer to the GS-11 -- it took two years of top ratings to begin to match that person with something close to GS-13 pay, and after NSPS was abolished, the employee still ended up getting a $7,000 raise up to the GS-13 step 1 scale. The GS system has pay for performance. It's call getting a promotion. And the pay scale rewards those who get promoted quickly and often, by continuing to give them frequent annual step increases, while those who are comfortable long-term performers, not seeking promotion, have more stagnant pay. NSPS succeeded in making everyone worry about pay instead of concentrating on being part of the team.

Mon, Jul 25, 2011

I worked under a NSPS type system for 20 years and four companies before I came to the Gov, the only difference was that we did not have the excruciating paperwork process that NSPS created. NSPS was a real life appraisal system built to government specifications (if you do not understand that, consider the old saw that an elephant is a mouse built to Gov specs).

And yes, the "brown nose" syndrome was an issue under NSPS, and the GS system, and in real life. Using that as an excuse not to reward performance is just that, an excuse. Favoritism will arise wherever you have people on people actions. I just have to look at some 14's here that made it under the GS system that can not do their jobs.

NSPS did make a few people work in my office who were stereotypical Gov 'workers', and now that NSPS is gone, they are back to the same mode, do just enough to not trigger the firing process (which in the Gov is MUCH harder to do than in Real Life).

But as Pete said, the Government funding system probably can not support the workers on NSPS and that is another couple of pages of rants.

Mon, Jul 25, 2011 Mike Bremerton, WA

Pay for performance concept was rotten from the beginning. Every command is given a pot of money to distribute - regardless of the performance of the command. If NSPS included an evaluation of the success of the organization - with resulting bonus money being increased or decreased to reflect the organizations success (or lack thereof) in accomplishing its misson - then it might have worked better. ALSO - upper management evaluating themselves has a degree of self-pleasuring actions that can be rife with cronyism. There should have been provisions to get inputs from the working level people and the customer.

Mon, Jul 25, 2011

In my eyes, NSPS was a miserable failure. My supervisors high opinion of me seemed to matter little, however my supervisor's senior rater replaced supervisor when he leftwith a friend that lived two streets over and he made out like a bandit, which was frustrating because he seemed to sit on our conference calls reading catch phrases out of the "Management for Dummies" book. My NSPS review from my supervisor that worked with me daily was at the "mentor" level, however the supervisors that I spoke to once every 2-3 weeks dropped that rating to barely above average. NPSP is great in theory, but in practice, there are too many inner circles of friends that receive the big benifits.

Mon, Jul 25, 2011

I did well under NSPS; in 3 years I reached my present grade level whereas it would have taken 7 years under the GS system (without promotions). Besides the valid cons mentioned above, I don't think the money was there to sustain the expensive NSPS system.

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