By Steve Kelman

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Kelman: Annoyed by pay complaints and cynical procurement lawyers

Maybe it is because classes this year are starting before Labor Day, I am in a slightly sour mood and thus more easily annoyed than usual, but I ran across two items this week that I didn't like.
First, I was reading the most recent issue of Contract Management magazine, published by the National Contract Management Association, and saw the bio squib for one of the authors. The article didn't bother me at all, but the bio squib did. The author was identified as a lawyer in the "Government Contracts and White Collar Crime" group at a Washington law firm. Is it really possible that this is the same group of lawyers?  This identification says a whole lot about the problems the procurement system faces today. The message sent by conflating procurement and white-collar crime directs the system away from paying attention to how do we use procurement to produce better value for the government. It suggests both that contractors are crooks and that in dealing with the government, contractors should focus on staying out of jail rather than on achieving excellent performance. To the workforce, it says: this is not a field where I want to make my career.
Second, I was reading a story by Alyssa Rosenberg in the daily Government Executive called "Obama Stands Firm on 2 Percent Civilian Pay Hike." The theme of the article was that the administration had decided to use a national-emergency authority to limit pay raises to 2 percent this year, and that federal employee unions had criticized this as an insufficient pay hike. At the risk of upsetting some readers, may I ask:  on what planet are these people living? In this economy, the world is filled with pay freezes and pay cuts -- not to speak of the almost 10 percent of the workforce that is unemployed. I am working under a salary freeze at Harvard, and, indeed, with changes in the way I am credited for activities I do, I am required to do more activities than before to earn that salary. Just two days ago a carpenter who does work for us informed us that he is lowering the hourly salary we pay him for work we hire him for, because of the economy. At Stanford Law School, where my brother teaches, they not only have a salary freeze, but the faculty voluntarily agreed to return their previous year's salary increases to provide the school money so they wouldn't need to lay off some low-paid workers. And let's not even talk about what's happened to the wages and benefits of auto workers.
I am proud to count myself a strong friend of the career federal workforce, and I also agree there are some government jobs (not all) that are underpaid. But with economic hard times and a massive deficit, I am actually surprised federal employees are getting any salary increase this year at all. And to criticize the increase for being too small suggests a sense of entitlement and lack of sympathy for the situation of others that goes beyond the bounds of decency.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 03, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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