EDITOR'S DESK—Commentary

Work to rule

A good friend of mine, a former labor reporter but also an unflinching conservative, likes to say that companies get the unions they deserve. What he means, of course, is that a company that values its workforce will succeed in partnership with its employees and their representatives. A company that doesn’t will invariably lock horns with the very people who determine its success.

Call it the physics of the workplace: For every management action there will be, by definition, an equal and opposite reaction on the part of employees.

So what are we to make of the demise of the National Security Personnel System, the Defense Department’s experiment with a salary system based on performance rather than rank and seniority? This was, after all, an earnest attempt by the federal government to reward its best employees with better pay — on the theory that higher pay will inspire better performance, and better performance will drive success in the mission.

What transpired instead was one of the most bitter and antagonistic episodes in the history of federal management/employee relations. Any news story we wrote on the subject received not only soaring Web traffic but also dozens of impassioned comments from readers.

And the bile was flowing on both sides of the debate. Rank-and-file employees had no trust in management’s ability to parcel out performance raises fairly and objectively. For their part, managers suspected employees of wanting only to put in their time on the clock and go home with a paycheck. It was a no-win situation from the beginning, leading Congress to pull the plug on NSPS after only three years.

But as senior editor John Stein Monroe reports in this week’s cover story, the problems posed by pay for performance in general and NSPS in particular aren’t so much in the idea as in the execution.

For one thing, he writes, linking pay to performance from the start forces managers to make judgments about an employee’s work — and pay — before any groundwork has been laid for performance criteria. That puts both manager and employee in a bind, breeding distrust on both sides.

Just as significantly, perhaps, the fiscal constraints of the federal government make it hard for management to deliver the goods. In the private sector, performance is supposed to drive revenue growth, from which management can presumably share the wealth. Not so with deficit-laden Uncle Sam.

So the question remains, how can the government get the workforce it deserves?

About the Author

David Rapp is editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week and VP of content for 1105 Government Information Group.

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