The kiss of death?

Positioning classification is an important function within the federal government, but it's facing extinction. Years ago, more than 2,000 classifiers worked for the government, but now their numbers have dwindled to less than 500. I see this development as a serious threat to the merit system principles that are embodied in the civil service system, flawed as it is.

Positioning classifiers establish the rate of pay for individual positions by using classifications standards (objective criteria) to differentiate the degree of complexity and skills associated with the successful performance of individual jobs. The end result of the position classification process is the establishment of basic rates of pay for individual jobs.

This administration and its predecessors continue to call for greater flexibility in the current system of classifying and paying workers because they contend that the system doesn't reward individual excellence and does not reflect market pay levels. But what they're really saying is that they want to pay workers whatever they want, without regard to the nature of the job, individual qualifications or performance. In other words, they favor a spoils system. That may please the politicians, but it could mean the kiss of death for the career civil service as we know it today.

Although the current system is far from perfect, I don't understand what additional flexibility the politicians are looking for. Under the present system, many positions are part of a "career ladder." That means the incumbent enters at the beginning level and the supervisor can move that individual up to the highest level based on the incumbent's progress. Doesn't that provide ample flexibility?

And if an individual reaches the highest grade and the supervisor wants to promote him or her, all he or she needs to do is establish a higher-grade position (with the help of a position classifier) and fill the job. Where is this lack of flexibility? I just don't get it!

All the talk about needing greater flexibility, in my opinion, is just a smoke screen for tearing down the civil service system and replacing it with a system that's based mostly on whom you know (and vote for). As it is, favoritism is a fact of life in today's federal workplace, but there are some safeguards in place that help keep it in check. Giving the politicians what they want would open the floodgates wide.

And if you buy the argument that federal pay isn't adequate, there's no practical way to deal with that. Although the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act was passed more than 10 years ago, neither Congress nor the executive branch have shown any interest in appropriating funds to raise federal pay. Their main interest appears to be satisfying their political cronies. Let's make sure they fail. n

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


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