Actions speak louder

The Bush administration claims that it is in favor of free markets and open competition. So then what's with the hypocrisy surrounding federal employee retention allowances?

Government agencies are permitted to offer retention allowances to employees who are planning to leave the federal government for any reason. They have had this authority since 1995. But government agencies aren't allowed to offer retention allowances to employees heading to other agencies.

The Office of Personnel Management explained their opposition late in the Clinton administration: "We did not authorize agencies to pay retention allowances to employees likely to leave for other federal employment because of concerns about potentially disruptive and costly bidding wars among federal agencies competing for employees with highly desired skills or competencies."

Wasn't that position ridiculous? If a fed wants to take a job with another agency in order to get a promotion, why shouldn't his agency be allowed to compete by offering a retention allowance? In all likelihood, the agency can't offer a promotion because they don't have a vacancy so the retention allowance is the only way they can compete. Why would it be disruptive to offer a retention allowance? Disruptive to whom?

As for "costly," an agency can't spend what it doesn't have. If it has the money and wants to offer an employee a retention allowance, I don't see any problem with that. And, my perspective was apparently shared by numerous government agencies. So when agency officials urged OPM to change the policy, OPM agreed to propose modifying the rule.

"We recognize that agencies may experience significant staffing problems that hinder their ability to meet mission objectives when their employees leave for other federal jobs," according to OPM's January 2001 change in position.

The same month, just before administrations changed, OPM proposed allowing agencies to offer retention allowances to prevent employees from leaving for jobs in other agencies. Federal managers, under limited circumstances, would have been able to increase workers' pay by up to 25 percent per year to keep employees from bolting to another agency.

I would've expected the Bush administration to favor the OPM proposal because it was pro-competition. Was I wrong! The Bush administration decided recently to hold off on this proposal because of concerns that it would spark bidding wars among agencies for key employees. "The regulations are still under discussion within the administration," an OPM spokesman said.

So now we are back to square one. I just don't get it. There's nothing wrong with a bidding war if you truly believe in free and open competition. Why not let an employee go to the highest bidder? Isn't unfettered and open competition what the Bush administration is committed to? Sure doesn't look that way. I guess they are just not prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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