NSPS: anatomy of a failure

The government's most significant recent effort to move to pay for performance failed in just three years. Our readers have some thoughts about why.

The ill-fated National Security Personnel System is the most high-profile attempt in recent years to move federal employees to a pay-for-performance system. The effort sputtered and failed over the course of three short years, from its implementation in 2006 to its repeal in 2009. The units that had moved to NSPS have been transitioning back to the General Schedule or other systems, such as the experimental Science and Technology Reinvention Laboratory, with a Jan. 1, 2012, deadline.

Why didn’t NSPS work? Our readers have offered some thoughts.

Several said moving from the GS system to NSPS allowed managers to promote their friends and overlook anyone who wasn’t in their inner circle.

“From what I saw in my organization under NSPS, actual performance had little, if anything, to do with the evaluations and subsequent pay increases,” one reader told us. “NSPS was a total failure because it did not provide what it promised for most of the people who worked under it.”

A reader named Ken Poyner recalled a similar experience. “Pay for performance did not work at my location due to rampant favoritism,” he wrote. “A very small subset of the well-connected reaped amazing raises during NSPS, while the value of NSPS shares went down to accommodate the greater resources passed to the inner circle. Pay for performance requires a fair and engaged management.”

Others pointed to the lack of clear, objective guidelines for measuring performance, which made the whole process subjective.

“NSPS was a poorly conceived and executed idea because it did not address the root issue,” wrote one reader who took that view.

Finally, some readers concluded that NSPS was a clear demonstration of why pay for performance will never work in the government.

“The role of the federal government does not lend itself to a pay-for-performance system,” one reader wrote. “NSPS invites in the type of corruption you see in other countries, and that is exactly what was happening under the failed NSPS experiment. The General [Schedule] system works very well for government. Government does not operate to make a profit, nor should it. If your principal goal in life is to make money, don't work for the government. Start a business and go for it and stop complaining.”

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