Is there a future for the General Schedule?

Reforming the civil service would be a heavy lift, but members of Congress have little patience for the status quo.

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Scandals involving career officials at the IRS and the Department of Veterans Affairs have contributed to a push for changes in the way public employees are hired and fired. But a wholesale overhaul of the General Service system, in place since 1949, will require focus and political will, witnesses at a July 15 House hearing made clear. Designed for an era when government jobs involved more manual labor and clerical work, the GS doesn't match well with the highly specialized and often technical roles in demand by government agencies.

"It's complicated, and it has to be addressed systemically," said Robert Goldenkoff, director for strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. The preliminary findings of an ongoing GAO review of GS classification indicate that the Office of Personnel Management could do more to make federal employment and compensation more equitable, transparent, flexible, simple and adaptable. "We're driving a Studebaker, when we need smart cars," Goldenkoff said.

The use of the GS system to classify and compensate more than 80 percent of the federal workforce ignores the reality of the current labor market, said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), chairman of the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Census Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Reform panel. "It's no wonder we continue to bear the burden of inefficient and unacceptable and unaccountable federal government."

Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, asserted that the GS system has been adapted to the modern workplace, and functions as a tool to reward employees for good performance. Archuleta, who is in charge of implementing the GS, said her job involves "making use of the flexibilities that the current system already provides us, and developing new innovative, cost-effective solutions when needed." These solutions include using social media to recruit the next generation of federal workers and developing government-wide strategies for IT workers.

Complaints notwithstanding, a proposal to replace the GS was not on offer from either witnesses or legislators -- though the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen did publish a report in April calling for a civil service overhaul. That report was highly critical of the GS, nothing that "statutory distinctions between ... classifications represented by the 15 General Schedule pay grades are arbitrary and arcane." The authors called for a radical rethinking of GS, with five classification systems that chart overall career levels, from entry level to senior manager. Pay would vary based on occupation, with high-skill and high-demand posts commanding higher salaries.

Federal employees have heard much of this before, and some have experienced efforts to change the system with the brief but memorable National Security Personnel System, a plan to give managers in the Department of Defense more freedom to promote, reward, and dismiss individual civilian employees. Patricia J. Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, who worked under NSPS, said that while the program was well-intentioned, "implementation failed to follow design." Niehaus backed changing the GS system to reward performance over longevity, but she cautioned that a transparent performance rating system was critical, along with a commitment to implement a new system with adequate and ongoing training.

For many feds, the problem is not the need for big picture reform, but the consequences of politicians using the federal workforce as a punching bag. J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, stressed that point, and said that government salaries and benefits serve as "a convenient ATM for budget agreements."

President Obama has in the past called on Congress to establish a Commission on Federal Public Service Reform to take a hard look at federal employment. Former OPM Director Donald Devine, who served under President Ronald Reagan, agreed with the need to "look big at the whole fundamental thing." Rethinking civil service for an age of budgetary constraint is a perennial topic, and the hearing was preceded by a July 11 panel that examined the viability of the Senior Executive Service. It remains to be seen whether these workforce inquiries in Congress lead to specific legislative proposals.

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