NSPS: The final act

The drama of the Defense Department's pay-for-performance system, which began nearly six years ago, has turned into a tragedy

The drama of the National Security Personnel System, which began nearly five years ago with the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, appears destined to become a tragedy.

The likely death blow came in a congressional report on the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, in which lawmakers told the Defense Department to pull the plug on the system by Jan. 1, 2012.

It was a steep fall for an idea that began with such high hopes. NSPS, unlike the old General Schedule system, was supposed to raise the level of government work by tying pay directly to performance.

“The NSPS has been more than two years in the making and may prove to be the most significant change in federal workplace rules since the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act,” wrote the Washington Post’s Stephen Barr in May 2006 as the first 11,000 DOD employees began working under the system. “Administration officials hope the NSPS will make it easier to reward the department's best workers and to weed out poor performers.”

But the story’s tragic dimension has been apparent for a long time as more employees began working under the system and discovering its flaws. Pay for performance might be good in concept, but to many Federal Computer Week readers, NSPS was a miserable failure.

“It's about time someone took a look at NSPS and recognized it was an abomination,” wrote one anonymous reader. “Even though I, as a supervisor, did OK under its provisions, it was rife with abuses and looked like a return to the dark days of the 'good old boy' practices it was supposed to eliminate.”

According to many readers, the main problem with NSPS is that federal managers did not know how to work with the system or simply weren’t interested in doing so.

“The NSPS was just another way for management to reward those who ‘cooperate and are liked,’ as [opposed] to those who perform their duties,” one reader said. “NSPS would have made it much easier to demoralize and harass employees not in the boss's inner circle.”

But others believe the problem is more systemic. Federal managers cannot link pay to performance because their personnel budget does not allow it. A manager might have 15 employees doing excellent work but only have enough money to pay five of those employees at the appropriate level. That often makes it difficult to give employees the raises they deserve.

“With only three to four staff, I still had to spend dozens of hours each rating period writing up ‘assessments’ that would meet all of the requirements,” wrote a Navy supervisor. “And the language, with required ‘performance indicators’ and ‘contributing factors,’ [made it] very tough…to demonstrate anything beyond simply ‘met expectations.'”

Still, some readers were sorry to hear that they would be going back to the GS pay system, under which the link between pay and performance is tenuous at best.

“I've never been a fan of NSPS as it is, but at least it gave us the ability to increase our salaries commensurate with the corporate world,” Paul wrote. “Now, I'll likely be stuck at my current level for the next five years with only cost-of-living increases and max out soon after.”

Numerous readers have complained that the GS system often leaves managers with too few options when it comes to rewarding good performance, but they still largely view NSPS as the wrong solution.

Perhaps a reader named Ed summed it up best when he wrote: “Government does need a better performance rating system, but this is not it. I will be happy to return to the GS pay scale.”

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Reader comments

Tue, Jan 5, 2010

I can honestly say that after working 25 years as a federal service employee, I had never being recognize, until I got a new job in another agency under NSPS. NSPS it may have good and bad parts, but if you really have fair supervisors who really take the time to evaluate you base on performance without any bias it really work. I was asked to keep a log of what I did (how much time I perform in research, customer service, meetings, training, and other) it really paid at the end of the year I was able to write my accomplishments base on what I did and for the first time I was recognize as a value employee on paper without judging my race, color, and ethnicity. I am thankful that this can be accomplished base on a great supervisor and a terrif department head, we should have more people like them, that believe in performance without being in the circle or the good old boys metality. We are in a new milenuim is time to really value people. Is time to really go back and train supervisors on how to be one.

Thu, Dec 17, 2009 USAFE

Okay, I have been sitting on the edge of my sit waiting for the infamous NSPS Pay Pool. I was not worried or anxious about how well I was going to do, just wondering how the process actually works. I had read articles and fact sheets until I was blue in the face. As far as my job was concerned I was very proud of what I had accomplished by myself and as a team with my supervisor.
However, that was about to change. My supervisor called me into the office and handed me my Employee Notice of Pay Pool Decisions. My supervisor had a look of disappointment and really didn’t know what to say to me. It would seem that the Pay Pool had downgraded my ratings due to something my supervisor had written in my assessments. They did not ask my supervisor for an opinion and did give my supervisor an opportunity to dispute their decision.
I thought long and hard about my ratings and was contemplating about asking for reconsideration. However, I asked a trusted friend, who had been on a couple of Pay Pools and he stated that you are only as good as what is written on paper. I was also told that a 3 is considered a “valued employee” and the Pay Pool would really listen to my issue because of this.
I can now see first-hand how unfair this pay system really is….

Thu, Oct 29, 2009 KMC Frederick, MD

NSPS helped me. It allowed me to be recognized as a hard working, extremely undervalued employee. Because it is quantitative, it alleviated the bias I was experiencing from a higher rater. My supervisor had more power to fight on my behalf. I had a good experience and will be sad to be stuck for years waiting for a step increase in the GS system. I agree there has been an effort in my agency to "dumb down" the system. I think this is because there is far too much paperwork for the supervisors now. They spend up to 2 weeks processing everyone's evaluations and performance plans. The problem with NSPS in my view is that nobody wants to do it "RIGHT", because it is so much work. But it has great potential.

Mon, Oct 26, 2009 engineer

I worked for the federal government over thirty years ago. I left because the pay was not keeping up with the private sector. I have been employed by the government now for eight months and am under the NSPS system. Under the GS system, the pay would not have been adequate for me to return. Although, I haven't been through a complete review cycle, I believe that it is much better than everyone getting the same raises, no matter how poorly they perform. There is no incentive for superior work, so people do only the minimum necessary.

Wed, Oct 21, 2009 Dangredo D0D

NSPS failed because it was a unilateral DoD movement against the Unions and the faithful governmetn service employee. All Personnel need to be returned to the GS System immediately and we should not have to wait until 2012. Furthermore, there now needs to be an investigation into hiring and promotion practices that have taken place during the past eight years. Military members who were unfairly promoted and hired should be dismissed because they were not fairly competed against faithful and honest employees.

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