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NSPS: The final act

The drama of the Defense Department's pay-for-performance system, which began nearly six years ago, has turned into a tragedy

The drama of the National Security Personnel System, which began nearly five years ago with the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004, appears destined to become a tragedy.

The likely death blow came in a congressional report on the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, in which lawmakers told the Defense Department to pull the plug on the system by Jan. 1, 2012.

It was a steep fall for an idea that began with such high hopes. NSPS, unlike the old General Schedule system, was supposed to raise the level of government work by tying pay directly to performance.

“The NSPS has been more than two years in the making and may prove to be the most significant change in federal workplace rules since the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act,” wrote the Washington Post’s Stephen Barr in May 2006 as the first 11,000 DOD employees began working under the system. “Administration officials hope the NSPS will make it easier to reward the department's best workers and to weed out poor performers.”

But the story’s tragic dimension has been apparent for a long time as more employees began working under the system and discovering its flaws. Pay for performance might be good in concept, but to many Federal Computer Week readers, NSPS was a miserable failure.

“It's about time someone took a look at NSPS and recognized it was an abomination,” wrote one anonymous reader. “Even though I, as a supervisor, did OK under its provisions, it was rife with abuses and looked like a return to the dark days of the 'good old boy' practices it was supposed to eliminate.”

According to many readers, the main problem with NSPS is that federal managers did not know how to work with the system or simply weren’t interested in doing so.

“The NSPS was just another way for management to reward those who ‘cooperate and are liked,’ as [opposed] to those who perform their duties,” one reader said. “NSPS would have made it much easier to demoralize and harass employees not in the boss's inner circle.”

But others believe the problem is more systemic. Federal managers cannot link pay to performance because their personnel budget does not allow it. A manager might have 15 employees doing excellent work but only have enough money to pay five of those employees at the appropriate level. That often makes it difficult to give employees the raises they deserve.

“With only three to four staff, I still had to spend dozens of hours each rating period writing up ‘assessments’ that would meet all of the requirements,” wrote a Navy supervisor. “And the language, with required ‘performance indicators’ and ‘contributing factors,’ [made it] very tough…to demonstrate anything beyond simply ‘met expectations.'”

Still, some readers were sorry to hear that they would be going back to the GS pay system, under which the link between pay and performance is tenuous at best.

“I've never been a fan of NSPS as it is, but at least it gave us the ability to increase our salaries commensurate with the corporate world,” Paul wrote. “Now, I'll likely be stuck at my current level for the next five years with only cost-of-living increases and max out soon after.”

Numerous readers have complained that the GS system often leaves managers with too few options when it comes to rewarding good performance, but they still largely view NSPS as the wrong solution.

Perhaps a reader named Ed summed it up best when he wrote: “Government does need a better performance rating system, but this is not it. I will be happy to return to the GS pay scale.”

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