‘Ticked off’ about pay at GAO

Some GAO analysts give agency’s new market-based pay system a poor grade

Some federal information technology analysts say they are unhappy with the Government Accountability Office’s new performance evaluation system, which GAO uses to set analysts’ pay. They say the system is unfair because it relies on standardized rating scores and market rates to determine who gets pay increases.

GAO concluded that it was paying too much for some mid-career analysts after it commissioned Watson Wyatt, a consulting company that specializes in compensation and benefits issues, to conduct a salary market survey.

In addition to market-based pay, GAO now uses a standardized rating score for consistency in applying performance standards to its analyst teams. The standardized rating score is an employee’s ranking relative to the average rating of the employee’s team. “They need to get rid of the relative rankings,” said a GAO IT analyst who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of pay-for-performance issues.

An official at the Comptroller General’s Office said GAO expects to continue using the standardizing rating score. Susan Kladiva, special assistant to the comptroller for performance management, said GAO uses the score to level out differences in how managers apply rating standards for employees who are lumped together in the same pay pool. Pay pools refer to the money that an agency sets aside for merit-based pay raises.

The IT analyst said GAO is using the scores to create an artificial distribution of performance evaluations so that it can minimize pay increases.

Congress made forced distribution illegal in federal agencies, said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that encourages people to seek public service jobs. But agencies with pay-for-performance systems such as GAO’s must still try to make meaningful distinctions in performance, he said.

All employees in the same pay pool, for example, cannot be above average. “It’s statistically impossible,” Palguta said. “It’s not Lake Wobegon. The men may be handsome, the women may be strong, but all the kids are not above average.”

The IT analyst said he and other analysts would understand if they were told that the federal budget is tight and that pay raises are out of the question. Instead, he said, 25-year GAO veterans feel insulted and unappreciated by a ranking system that implies that half of the analysts in his cohort are performing below a satisfactory level despite receiving good performance evaluations.

GAO employees whose rating scores are in the lower half of the distribution receive no cost-of-living adjustment. The IT analyst, whose pay was capped when GAO moved to market-based pay, said he and as many as 300 of his colleagues are losing ground without the cost-of-living adjustment. “Needless to say, we’re pretty ticked off about that.”

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