Sound familiar?

Bureaucratus: Pay for performance has been tried before ? and it failed

It seems there is a universal tendency to reinvent the wheel. A good example is the Bush administration's attempt to link pay to performance.

No matter how hard you try to tell administration officials that "pay-for- performance," or merit pay, has been tried (and failed), they will not listen. They are pushing very hard to create a pay-for-performance civil service compensation system.

The administration wants to bypass the 2.7 percent base pay raise set by the formula typically used to determine the 2004 civil service pay raise. Instead, the fiscal 2004 budget proposal gives federal employees a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise next year and creates a $500 million pay-for-performance fund to give outstanding feds an additional salary boost.

Union leaders say tongue-in-cheek that the current pay system already allows for performance-based pay. "If performance is found to be especially good, managers have the authority to award 'quality step increases' as an additional incentive," Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, told a congressional subcommittee April 1. "If performance is found to be below expectations, the step increase can be withheld."

Congress must first approve the performance fund Bush wants, something lawmakers at a joint House/Senate hearing recently said was not likely to happen because of the government's poor record in establishing performance appraisal systems.

One employee who testified hit the nail on the head when he said performance systems do not work because they are not adequately funded. A $500 million pay-for-performance fund, he said, would make performance budget-driven. If agencies are not properly funded to apply pay for performance in a fair and equitable manner, their budgets would determine who gets a performance award. No degree of performance would change that.

A federal retiree testifying before a congressional committee said, "I'm a retired military and career civil servant and have either been part of or have seen this pay for performance at many bases. The results are the same, with upper-level management getting the T-bone steak and throwing a few of the steak bones to the chosen few GS-12s."

The facts seem to bear out the testimony. Last year, among Senior Executive Service members, distinguished rank recipients received a lump-sum payment of 35 percent of their base pay, and meritorious rank recipients received 20 percent of base pay. Rank awards are given only to career SES employees for sustained accomplishment over a period of at least three years. One percent of SES members annually can be designated as distinguished executives and five percent of SES members annually may be designated meritorious executives. Do you know of anything comparable for rank-and-file feds? Or do just the chosen few GS-12s receive "the steak bones" alluded to by the retired fed?

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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