Letter to the editor

I find your articles and columns very interesting, but I am particularly drawn to the letters you receive from the government information technology workers "in the trenches" who are basically getting the short end of the stick.

I'm not sure if I read it in FCW, but I was interested to read the comments of the new director of the Office of Personnel Management, Kay Coles James. In her first briefing before Congress, she addressed the plight of the government IT sector. I am concerned, however, that she is getting only part of the picture and is really unaware of what the actions her predecessor, Janice LaChance, have done to a large percentage of the government IT workforce. The actions caused a morale problem that can only hurt government IT support even more.

In her testimony before the House Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee on the problems the government has in attracting and keeping IT employees, James pronounced the first positive statement I have seen or heard in defense of the government's undervalued and maligned IT workers: "The government's effective response to the Y2K crisis shows that our information technology workforce can rise to meet extraordinary challenges."

Well, hooray for someone who seems to have a clearer picture of what IT workers have been doing for years. And as a matter of fact, a lot of those IT workers who "rose to meet the challenge" were the so-called computer clerks/assistants—the GS-335 personnel who were effectively locked out from the new IT raises.

James also said, "The federal government is experiencing a shortage of qualified workers in the field of information technology." I hope that she has been briefed on precisely what her predecessor thought was the answer to the government's IT problems: Treat the ones that do a large amount of the IT work in a shabby manner and discriminate against those don't happen to work in certain positions.

It is ludicrous to think that a handful of computer specialist GS-334 network control center personnel, for instance, can handle all IT support and administration for possibly more than 5,000 computers for a particular unit or installation! There is a definite need for professionals at all levels because it is unrealistic to think that a high level of customer support can be maintained by one office far removed from daily concerns. But it seems anyone below that level is merely a clerk/assistant.

Computer networks are not totally reliable; there are many links in the chain and many vulnerabilities. All network and systems administration personnel at every level are part of information force protection. "Guardians of the Fifth Dimension" is the term I have heard applied to those of us who support your "day-to-day, take-for-granted" computer networks.

Before OPM officials can claim that making "retention incentive payments more flexible and easier for agencies to use in a very targeted way," they need to sort out the bungled mess they created with this so-called IT retention ploy—higher IT pay for "selected" IT workers. Pity those increases won't be available for GS-335 personnel because they aren't "real" computer specialists.

What about the GS-335 workers who have been kicked to the curb, so to speak? How about that workforce that might be here for another five to six years, should they decide to "tough it out" before they decide to jump ship and retire or find something new where they are respected and paid for what they do in the private sector? Will they be eligible for these programs?

James perceptively noted that the characterization of civil service workers as "merely an undifferentiated workforce of low-graded clerks intent on a 30-year career has got to go, and so do the systems that were designed to support such notions." GS-335 personnel happen to be classified as "computer clerks/assistants." But we are IT professionals who deserve as much respect as some of the misclassified computer specialists who are reaping the benefits we have been excluded from.

James goes on to say, "Our principal efforts have been threefold: First, we have established special salary rates for IT specialists, scientists and engineers. Second, we have issued a new classification standard for IT specialist positions. And third, we have piloted a new approach to establishing and assessing qualifications for IT work."

That's all fine and dandy, but I know there are personnel classified as computer specialists whose primary work is not IT system administration or management, but are truly "subject matter experts" for certain proprietary systems. I also know there are many IT professionals who are totally misclassified. This hard-working core of IT people is exempt from the pay raises, which are substantial. Private business couldn't get away with this because they would be dragged into court by the very government that is abusing some of their most dedicated and hardest working IT personnel.

James continues, "All along the way, OPM has worked closely with the leaders of the IT community—the federal [CIO] Council and particularly its Federal IT Workforce Committee."

James also added, "We used a series of focus groups of subject-matter experts and line managers to clarify and establish the occupational specialties that properly describe IT work at the start of the 21st century. These efforts produced real results for IT managers throughout government."

Now that explains why the decisions were made the way they are. A lot of these managers are unfamiliar with IT. The sad part is, they think they know it all. A lot of IT managers are IT managers because their agency or unit or office dropped a computer on their desk, installed a local-area network, and there was no one there who had been trained at all. We are still sorting out problems with network equipment that non-IT personnel installed in our facility a few years back.

In June of this year, OPM issued a new classification standard for IT management positions. James said, "The new standard expands the legacy world of mainframe computers to recognize the contemporary realities of networking, the Internet and computer security needs. The standard reflects new and emerging technologies and identifies 10 new specialty areas."

The problem is that the classifiers do not understand what they are classifying! Our jobs have evolved rapidly and become more technically challenging, involving all of the above.

James appears to have a good grasp on what needs to be done as we continue to move forward in the 21st century. But she can only rely on what is told to her. I fear that the basic truths about what is going on far removed from OPM have viciously undercut a lot of dedicated workers who just may retire and get out, and/or look for a job where they will not only be paid for what they do, but be given the respect they deserve.

After almost 25 years in the IT business, I have seen it all. But I have never seen so many people get "kicked to the curb," to phrase it politely, by the way OPM makes its decisions. I hope they will see the light and come to regret and repeal some of the really thoughtless decisions they have made in this area.

In the meantime, IT workers, whatever their classification, will continue to strive to provide the very best computer support and management we can, because in spite of what the general consensus is, we take pride in what we do.

Thank you for reading my incredibly long letter, but it is hard to put into words the way a lot of us are feeling right now. Being a GS-335 computer clerk/assistant is a career-ending position, with no upward mobility at all.

Name withheld by request

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