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With deficit at forefront, civil service reform not likely

Jan. 10, 2013 - 01:37PM   |  
By STEPHEN LOSEY   |   Comments

Don’t expect civil service reform in 2013.

Although administration officials, many lawmakers and experts outside the government agree that the six-decade-old General Schedule system must be improved, nobody seems willing to take the first step. President Obama has called on Congress several times to set up a civil service reform commission to study the pay structure and recommend possible changes. But lawmakers have not even discussed doing so.

And ongoing squabbles over the deficit — which often involve proposed cuts to federal pay, benefits or staffing levels — are likely to dominate lawmakers’ federal workforce agenda.

Federal employee unions — whose participation would be vital in preparing a workable civil service reform — are lukewarm at best when it comes to overhauling the civil service system. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said shortly after his election that proposals to change how federal employees are paid always end up lowering federal employee pay. He wants to see more steps added to the GS system’s current 10 steps per grade, which would allow employees who have topped out to keep earning raises, although he acknowledged that is not likely.

Also this year, the Office of Personnel Management and four other agencies will continue piloting a new performance management system called GEAR — for goals, engagement, accountability and results. OPM hopes the 2013 Employee Viewpoint Survey will show at least a 5 percent improvement in creating a results-oriented culture at the agencies testing GEAR.

GEAR is intended to lay the groundwork for further civil service overhauls and be a template for performance management at other agencies. It does not make any structural changes to federal personnel systems, but calls on agencies to create a culture of ongoing, continuous feedback between managers and employees. GEAR recommends, but does not require, that managers hold quarterly performance reviews with employees to improve communication and alert employees to any ongoing performance problems.

But GEAR has so far failed to generate much enthusiasm.

“I’m not very excited about that, to be point-blank honest,” Cox said. He thinks the government instead needs to find ways to better reward high-performing employees.

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