Union Leaders Defend GS System, Up to a Point

By Joe Davidson
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Presidents of the two largest federal employee unions launched a defense yesterday of the General Schedule pay system that the Bush administration attempted to eliminate and the Obama administration, at a minimum, wants to reenergize.
Yet their defense was not without caveats. Both spoke to the need to modernize the familiar 60-year-old GS system that covers most of the 2 million federal workers.
National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen M. Kelley and American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage told the opening session of an “Excellence in Government” conference that while the GS system can be improved, it is far better than the Pentagon’s National Security Personnel System. The Pentagon system was the model for the kind of pay-for-performance operation the Bush administration wanted to spread throughout the government.
“The GS system, it is a system that is not perfect,” Kelley told the meeting, which was sponsored by the Government Executive Media Group. Then she added: “It is a system that is fair. It is understandable. . . . It is transparent,” all qualities the NSPS stands accused of lacking.
Critics of the NSPS are not limited to union leaders. A committee of the Defense Business Board, a group of private sector executives advising the Defense secretary, issued an interim report last week that called for a “reconstruction of the NSPS.” The report called it “complex,” “confusing,” “lacks transparency” and has “limited promotion opportunities.”
Gage told the government workers at the conference in the Ronald Reagan Building that the General Schedule “is basically a good system,” but that a new performance management program could be incorporated into an updated pay classification arrangement.
A new performance management system is key to the reform of the compensation and evaluation plan for federal employees that the Obama administration wants to develop. Pay-for-performance programs emphasize job execution, while the GS system has gained a reputation for rewarding workers for longevity.
In fact, the GS also can reward performance, but that mechanism has been stunted, like crops that get too little rain. Both union leaders later cited ways to recognize superior employees in the GS system, through a variety of means they consider more fair and open than the NSPS model.
“The GS system provides plenty of ways to reward superior performance,” Kelley said. “Under the GS, there is a framework for establishing performance levels, identifying those who meet those levels, and rewarding them. Rewards can come in the form of Quality Step Increases, under which employees with overall outstanding ratings receive a step increase in their grade without completing the waiting period.”
Gage cited the bonus and time-off awards available as incentives to GS employees.
“You can be very creative in the GS system,” Gage said.
John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, addressed the conference’s closing session, but stayed away from advancing specific policy prescriptions. He would not comment on the report to the Defense Board because it is not a final document.
But he did say that the Obama administration will “develop a performance appraisal system that gives substantial rewards to our very best workers, recognizes the good work of the vast majority of our employees, and disciplines and removes the few bad apples who have been given the chance to improve but have either failed or refused to do so.”
That would be part of the “comprehensive reform, from recruitment and hiring to pay and training” Berry said the federal workplace needs.
“We have, by and large, the best workers in the world, but we do not have the systems or policies we need to support them.”
Much of Berry’s speech, titled “A New Day for the Civil Service,” was devoted to praising federal civil servants. After ticking off a list of their accomplishments, Berry said perceptions of federal employees “changed for the worse as it became fashionable for politicians of both parties to run against Washington and the boogey man of ‘the bureaucracy.’ ”
It was a bit ironic that Berry mentioned those politicians in a building named for Reagan, who did more to dump on government than anyone, famously saying “government is the problem” in his first inaugural address.
Berry, describing himself as the “chief people-person for the federal government” strongly defended the federal workforce, saying “It’s time the denigration ends.”
“I argue today that the premise of these attacks was not only misguided — it was completely wrong,” he added. “The American people were sold a bill of goods. Federal workers are not second class or inferior to workers in the private sector, and we never were.”
Curiously, some of his applause lines like that one were met with silence.
Maybe some federal workers believe the bull that’s been spread about them.
Read John Berry’s speech here.
Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.