White House issues civil service reform proposal

The White House today revealed another major piece of its second term government transformation project by releasing a draft version of civil service reform legislation.

In its current form, the “Working for America Act of 2005” would phase out the General Schedule system of pay and promotion by 2010, replacing it with occupation-based pay bands each composed of four grades. In addition, the proposal would link as much as 3 percent of workers’ annual salaries to some measure of worker performance.

Pay banding would allow government salaries for high-demand occupations to better reflect market conditions on both a local and a national level, said Clay Johnson, Office of Management and Budget deputy director for management. Today’s 50-year old system was set up when the federal government mostly employed clerks and typists rather than professionals, Johnson said while speaking today with reporters.

“We tend to treat [employees] like bureaucrats,” but an IT professional and a doctor don’t perform the same work, he added. The recent annual Office of Personnel Management survey of the federal workforce shows that only 29 percent of workers say that differences in performance are recognized in a meaningful way.

Agencies employing more than half of federal workers are already covered by some form of pay for performance system. But the proposed bill would create a set of reforms significantly less expansive than the ongoing changes at the Defense and Homeland Security Departments, Johnson said.

“We don’t have that same need for urgent reaction in a domestic agency,” as in DOD and DHS, Johnson said. “Most of what’s controversial about what exists in DOD and DHS does not exist in this reform package,” including limitations on collective bargaining, he said, although federal worker unions disagree.

“The broad pay proposal the administration wants to impose would largely mimic that which has been suggested for DHS,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, in a written statement. “If basic federal pay is going to be changed, then unions need the right to bargain over pay,” she added.

The proposal is one piece of a handful of White House measures to change the way government works. Reforming the civil service supports and is supported by those measures, which include the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), Johnson said.

Without the articulation of federal programs goals required in PART examinations, it would be impossible to accurately assess how well federal workers are doing, Johnson said.

But now, “we’re much closer to having at least reasonably good performance measures for our programs, which means we can hold the senior person of that program accountable, which means he or she can hold the direct reports accountable, and so forth,” he said.

For civil service reform to work, managers will need to be adequately trained to evaluate their workers, Johnson added. “I don’t think anybody would say we are good managers of people,” he said. “Employees tell us that we’re not very good managers of people."

Training dollars are often the first to come under the red pens of congressional appropriators, however. But the annual dollar amounts involved are not staggering, Johnson said. They amount to hundreds of millions, “which is not zero, but it’s not billions,” he added. “This is not a fiscal challenge. This is a discipline challenge, a commitment challenge of holding people accountable.”

The time burden for managers and employees to craft performance goals and go through the evaluation process would not be burdensome, Johnson added. “Managers are spending time now managing,” he said. “But in a lot of cases, they’re not particularly effective at it. This helps make them effective at it.”

Agencies would all face a 2010 deadline for implementing the new personnel systems, but OPM certification would be a necessary precursor, Johnson said. “OPM becomes a quality-assurance entity,” he added.

The White House decided to release the legislation to the public in draft form following the June leak of an earlier draft to the media. The current version has incorporated comments from federal agency officials and is meant to inform the debate, Johnson said.

The act will not be introduced immediately into Congress, however. The Bush administration’s goal is to have legislation passed by the end of the 109th Congress. But administration officials will hold off trying to push for it until additional space opens up on the legislative branch’s busy agenda, he added.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.


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