Is there a future for the General Schedule?

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Scandals involving career officials at the IRS and the Department of Veterans Affairs have contributed to a push for changes in the way public employees are hired and fired. But a wholesale overhaul of the General Service system, in place since 1949, will require focus and political will, witnesses at a July 15 House hearing made clear. Designed for an era when government jobs involved more manual labor and clerical work, the GS doesn't match well with the highly specialized and often technical roles in demand by government agencies.

"It's complicated, and it has to be addressed systemically," said Robert Goldenkoff, director for strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. The preliminary findings of an ongoing GAO review of GS classification indicate that the Office of Personnel Management could do more to make federal employment and compensation more equitable, transparent, flexible, simple and adaptable. "We're driving a Studebaker, when we need smart cars," Goldenkoff said.

The use of the GS system to classify and compensate more than 80 percent of the federal workforce ignores the reality of the current labor market, said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), chairman of the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and Census Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Reform panel. "It's no wonder we continue to bear the burden of inefficient and unacceptable and unaccountable federal government."

Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, asserted that the GS system has been adapted to the modern workplace, and functions as a tool to reward employees for good performance. Archuleta, who is in charge of implementing the GS, said her job involves "making use of the flexibilities that the current system already provides us, and developing new innovative, cost-effective solutions when needed." These solutions include using social media to recruit the next generation of federal workers and developing government-wide strategies for IT workers.

Complaints notwithstanding, a proposal to replace the GS was not on offer from either witnesses or legislators -- though the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen did publish a report in April calling for a civil service overhaul. That report was highly critical of the GS, nothing that "statutory distinctions between ... classifications represented by the 15 General Schedule pay grades are arbitrary and arcane." The authors called for a radical rethinking of GS, with five classification systems that chart overall career levels, from entry level to senior manager. Pay would vary based on occupation, with high-skill and high-demand posts commanding higher salaries.

Federal employees have heard much of this before, and some have experienced efforts to change the system with the brief but memorable National Security Personnel System, a plan to give managers in the Department of Defense more freedom to promote, reward, and dismiss individual civilian employees. Patricia J. Niehaus, president of the Federal Managers Association, who worked under NSPS, said that while the program was well-intentioned, "implementation failed to follow design." Niehaus backed changing the GS system to reward performance over longevity, but she cautioned that a transparent performance rating system was critical, along with a commitment to implement a new system with adequate and ongoing training.

For many feds, the problem is not the need for big picture reform, but the consequences of politicians using the federal workforce as a punching bag. J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, stressed that point, and said that government salaries and benefits serve as "a convenient ATM for budget agreements."

President Obama has in the past called on Congress to establish a Commission on Federal Public Service Reform to take a hard look at federal employment. Former OPM Director Donald Devine, who served under President Ronald Reagan, agreed with the need to "look big at the whole fundamental thing." Rethinking civil service for an age of budgetary constraint is a perennial topic, and the hearing was preceded by a July 11 panel that examined the viability of the Senior Executive Service. It remains to be seen whether these workforce inquiries in Congress lead to specific legislative proposals.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 17, 2014 RonW

Was going to skip commenting, but the anti NSPS rant got to me. First, I worked in industry for 18 years until the Clinton down turn at the end of the 90's (and yes, it was a down turn, when you see over 500 engineers applying for two full time positions in one company and most of us applying have been out of work for three to nine months and most job offers are for 6 month contract jobs or offering 50K to go live in places like the San Francisco Bay area after making 65K in the Midwest, something is wrong). I worked the NSPS system for those 18 years and did fairly well at it and I did not play golf with the boss (no clubs either), just hard work. The NSPS was an attempt to align the government promotion/reward practices with industry and get away from the good ol' boy system that the GS system has become and the limitations on technical skills getting better pay if they worked at it. NSPS was poorly done with the attempt to put a lot of checks and balances in place that overloaded supervisors. Out of the approximately 80 engineers both software and hardware I associate with, only about eight hated it like the anon. poster appears to, and most of those were the ones whom you had a hard time getting useful work out of. One good thing NSPS did in our group was get the dead weight working, since the ONLY way you got a 'step' raise was to produce (unique concept for government workers). Those same folks went back to being stereotype government workers since they do not have any incentive to work, unlike the non-union folks on the outside who pay our salaries with their taxes. Because of the way NSPS (at least here) was implemented, it took three levels to make or break a pay decision, whereas the GS system takes three on paper to promote, but in reality only one really makes the decision if they have an agenda and we have seen that often in the past 14 years. Maybe NSPS is not the cure for the broken GS system, but I am glad I spent my first 18 years after school in industry under a version of NSPS because, it put me way ahead of my government peers in everything but leave time, and my eight years of military time helped equalize that.

Thu, Jul 17, 2014 Bill

How can you have any kind of pay for performance when 1. Performance Measurement at present is flawed and unrealistic and 2. The ratio of supervisors to employees (at least where I work) makes it impossible for supervisors to truly evaluate the performance of the employees under them. A workable performance measurement system needs to be ironed out BEFORE scraping the GS System, not afterwards...

Thu, Jul 17, 2014

How about better classification of the GS level of jobs, and awarded not automatic step increases? This is how private industry works....

Thu, Jul 17, 2014

The basic problem is the GS system itself. It is designed to treat everyone fairly. But life, as well as work, is not fair. Bill and Bob start their federal employment at the same time, in the same position. They are both making the same amount of money. They both work hard and both get the same raises and step increases because that is fair. Bob decides he enjoys breaks more than work and begins to spend more of his day reading teh newspaper and surfing the web while Bill continues to work harder and take on more challenges. They both continue to get the same step increases and pay raises. Soon Bill realizes that he will never get more than Bob no matter how hard he works, so why should he try. Now multiply that scenario across the entire federal work force. Where is the motivation to work hard and get ahead?

Wed, Jul 16, 2014

Well Spoken Ray!

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