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By Steve Kelman

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A young fed speaks

I had an interesting lunch today with a former fed who (in my humble view) is in a happy situation –- a child has followed his footsteps and entered government service, working in contracting and program management for a major federal agency.  The good news is that the son likes his job a lot. But the bigger story -– gleaned through several father-son conversations -- is more complicated.

Perhaps the two most important reasons the son likes his job are first, that he is constantly challenged to develop his skills, given assignments that in some sense are over his head, but that he loves to have the opportunity to learn and second, that the mission and what is being bought are both intrinsically interesting and substantively important for the nation.

The downside is that, according to the son, a main reason he is given so many challenging assignments is that the GS-15’s and even SES’ers above him are older people whom he describes as basically all being “retired in place.” They are willing to give the new recruit challenging work so they don’t have to do it themselves. This hardly bodes well for my friend’s son being able to gain the advantages of mentoring and dealing with a challenging assignment as part of a team including more experienced people.

A second point that his son raised is that he really feels the government is outgunned by the contractors they deal with at the negotiating table. The contractor personnel he deals with are of the age and experience level of his bosses, but they are not retired in place by any means. This puts the government at a disadvantage.

Finally -- and perhaps this won’t be surprising given the earlier points -- he and the other 150 or so young people working in his organization are overwhelmingly big fans of pay for performance, and don’t like the traditional GS system. They want to work hard, to achieve, and to be recognized for their achievements.

With the disappearance of the National Security Personnel System, which tried to bring pay for performance into the Defense Department, these young people are under a similar system in the Acquisition Workforce personnel demonstration program. I have written a number of times in earlier blogs about how my master’s students at Harvard have a similar view; they believe that the impression that achievement is not rewarded in government is a very big downside of going to work for government. These posts in the past have often been greeted with skeptical responses from some feds, who have referred to “Harvard brats” or “the elite.” However, my friend’s son went to a middle-tier state university, and none of his fellow new hires are from the Ivy League. They just want excellence to be respected and rewarded.

Posted on Jun 19, 2012 at 12:09 PM

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Reader comments

Wed, Jun 20, 2012 Kaiping China

In my country, we have a solid hierachy ranking system in government agencies. You have to move up to your career ladder "step by step". Even if you make great achievements to public service in young age,you have to be promoted step by step to a higher rank in government. The process is so long and frustrating~~~Your ranking is largely related to your years of working experiences instead of working achievements. Thus, most talented young choose not to work for the government~~~A very sad story~~

Wed, Jun 20, 2012 Tinker AFB

I'd have to agree with Fred Foster from Florida: perspective is everything. The son doesn't see what his superiors are doing and is of the generation that is used to everybody doing everything as a group. He assumes everybody above him is "retired in place" and sits around playing games on the computer. I've been in federal service for 27 years, am probably one of those above him in grade and I'm just a few years from retirement myself. I've never been busier. Ever. The kicker in federal service now is we have been so long in the mode of "more with less", we are now at "something with nothing." People are being asked to do far more than ever before. I think young grasshopper has to walk a few more miles in his own shoes before he can comprehend what is required to walk in the grades above him.

Wed, Jun 20, 2012

Of course, younger people want to be recognized and praised. This has been done for 30 years by numerous parents and teachers. As a federal employee, I'm skeptical about a new pay for performance. Having talked to friends who work in state government and private industry, pay for performance really seems to benefit those who toot their own horns instead of the good of the team. My question to the author becomes how does this benefit the nation's taxpayers?

Wed, Jun 20, 2012

It's amazing how so many employees (especially younger ones) think that they walk on water at work and that their superiors are retired in place. What happens if that pay for performance system he wants actually tells him that he doesn't walk on water? Then he'll just say that the system is unfair and rewards the supervisors' buddies.

Wed, Jun 20, 2012 Carol Pearson

I'm one of those older managers. Everyday is a challenge to keep the entire organization moving forward. Customer service is an imperative in acquisition service. The delegation of work requires follow-up daily to ensure the priorities of both the process and the client are met. The manager welcomes bright young minds to pursue the work, it makes the entire process successful. In pay for performance in Government the salary ceilings are always subject to the budget of the Agency so the public servant needs to recognize that along with job satisfaction, an adequate salary, good health benefits, and relative job security, that we are pledged to the secure administration of the Nation's business. If unlimited pay for performance bonus is an objective then perhaps the Government position isn't the best fit for the individual. Having said this I do feel that a structured bonus is a solid way of recognizing outstanding overall performance. I am not averse to the pay for performance and the current conversation is worthwhile. We are not there yet. Changing pay processes is a long involved process. In the instant we must continue to push the agenda recognizing that for the interim the current process will suffice.

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