DHS pay plan: Deal or no deal

Bill would repeal department’s authorization for a pay-for-performance system

States embrace Medicaid pay for performance

The House Homeland Security Committee has approved a measure that would throw out the Homeland Security Department’s fledgling pay system in what could be the first shot across the bow from the Democratic-controlled Congress to reverse pending changes in how federal employees are paid.

An amendment to DHS’ fiscal 2008 authorization bill, proposed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), would repeal authorization for the personnel system created under the 2002 Homeland Security Act. That overall legislation, which the committee approved March 28, could provide a blueprint for further action by congressional appropriators.

In offering the amendment, Lee described the new DHS personnel system and its implementing legislation as “a litany of failure” that guts employee due-process rights and jeopardizes the agency’s ability to retain a workforce capable of accomplishing its mission.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said the legislation would put “the nail in the coffin of a personnel system that would bring serious harm to DHS employees.” NTEU helped draft the language in Lee’s amendment, union officials said.

Earlier this year, DHS officials decided to scale back departmentwide implementation of the system that links pay increases to job performance. Officials decided to focus instead on a much smaller implementation. Several federal district court and appeals court injunctions have prevented DIS from moving ahead with a full system implementation. Bush administration officials hoped that system would be the model for a governmentwide pay system based on job performance.

“I think the idea was that [the DHS system] would create the tipping point for the rest of the government,” said John Kamensky, senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Administration officials have had to recognize that change is a lot more difficult than they expected, he said.

Extensive Training
The administration’s effort to replace the government’s 57-year-old General Schedule pay system of automatic raises with one based on job performance generated questions in the past year about the practical aspects of such a system. For example, observers have expressed concerns about the ability of managers to conduct fair and objective appraisals, particularly without extensive training.

Workforce experts say agencies must implement rigorous performance-management systems before linking pay to job performance. “Agencies don’t have performance-management systems — by that I mean clear goals and objectives with performance linked to those goals and objectives,” said Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University in Washington.

“I think that’s why DHS decided not to go forward,” Tobias said. “Specifically, [DHS officials] recognized that they have a lot of work to do in that area.”

Kamensky, former deputy director of former Vice President Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government, said the government’s ingrained management conventions are an impediment. “The culture of the federal government has never been very strong in terms of managers actually managing [employees] for performance,” he said. Federal managers are accustomed to thinking that any assessment of employees is the responsibility of human resources departments, he added.

It will take time and more realistic approaches, such as the one DIS is now taking, before pay-for-performance systems take hold in the federal government, Kamensky said. Major transformations take a long time, he said. For example, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) had a five-year phase-in period.

“The first strategic plan [for GPRA] wasn’t officially due until 1999, even though the law was passed in 1993,” he said.

However, Kamensky said, some form of federal merit-based pay system is inevitable, despite recent setbacks. “The move toward performance-based pay is occurring in the public sector across the world,” he said. “The U.S. federal government is lagging behind what other countries are doing. It’s an inexorable trend. It’s going to occur. The question is if it is going to occur correctly.”

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a  champion of performance-based pay, said he understands the hurdles ahead, but remains undeterred in his support for changing the way federal employees are paid.

Voinovich’s office issued a statement to Federal Computer Week reads that Voinovich “understands the difficulty in reforming performance management” because he was directly involved in such efforts when he was mayor of Cleveland.

“Voinovich knows it takes resources to develop, implement and monitor a strong performance-management system, which includes comprehensive training for employees, but that the results will benefit all federal employees,” according to the policy statement.
Voinovich hasn’t given up campaign for pay changesSen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a strong proponent of federal pay systems based on performance, wants the federal government to address weaknesses in the employee evaluation process — so much so that he has introduced legislation that would require federal supervisors to have regular conversations with employees about expectations and job performance. Employees must understand how their supervisors perceive their performance and how their work contributes to the agency’s mission, he said.

“Effective performance management is fundamental to building a results-oriented culture,” Voinovich said. His legislation, the Federal Workforce Performance Appraisal and Management Improvement Act, would prohibit employees who receive unacceptable performance appraisals from receiving annual raises.

Voinovich has introduced other legislation, the Senior Professional Performance Act, designed to help the federal government promote and retain senior employees who are not members of the Senior Executive Service. The bill authorizes agencies to develop pay-for-performance systems that adequately compensate senior-level scientific employees and other professional workers.
 — Richard W. Walker


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