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Lawmakers and agencies agree: GS system needs reform

Jul. 15, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
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Rep. Blake Farenthold is one of several lawmakers pushing to reform the GS system. (Mike Morones/Federal Times)

The current pay system for federal employees is outdated and long overdue for an overhaul, lawmakers and agency officials agreed at a hearing July 15.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, the chairman of the subcommittee on the federal Workforce, Postal Service and the Census, said the general schedule (GS) does not reward performance and encourages longevity instead of results.

“It allows workers to simply show up for years and years and collect wages,” Farenthold said. “Even federal employees recognize the flaws in the current system.”

Changes to the current system should focus on rewarding effort and in quickly weeding out poor performers.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., the ranking member of the subcommittee, said at the hearing that Congress should explore what form reform should take and identify a system that allows employees to thrive while emphasizing accountability.

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“Some would like to modernize the GS system. Other want to eliminate it or replace it with a pay-for-performance system,” Lynch said.

But years of pay freezes and low raises have hurt the credibility of Congress to deal fairly with federal workers, according to Lynch, and lawmakers should remember that federal employees perform vital services for the country.

But the federal government no longer reflects the GS system put in place by law in 1949 as agencies switched from clerical work to more complex services, according to Office of Personnel Management director Katherine Archuleta.

“As the work and mission of the federal government grew and became more complex, there have been concerns regarding whether current personnel systems are up-to-date and flexible enough to meet changing needs,” Archuleta said.

She said agencies currently have the tools they need to deal with poor performers and to manage employees but that OPM is always looking for ways to improve the existing system. She added President Obama has asked Congress in his budget requests to convene a commission analyzing the pay system and possible reforms.

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“To ensure we have the workforce with the right skills to meet the challenges we face, an examination of our human capital management system is needed,” Archuleta said.

Federal human capital management and the GS system has been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list since 2001, according to Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the agency.

He said OPM has allowed agencies to conduct their own oversight of employee GS classifications since the 1980s because it has not had the staff to do so itself. And budget cuts have only made matters worse in recent years, he added.

Any improvements in the current GS system should focus on transparency of classifications and process, simplicity and accountability while giving agencies flexibility in an ever-changing jobs landscape, Goldenkoff said.

“The government has improved its human capitol efforts but its job is far from over,” Goldenkoff said.

Patricia Niehaus, the president of the Federal Managers Association, said the GS system hasn’t kept up with the times and that it needs to be used as a stepping stone to a system that pays for performance.

Agencies should have the flexibility to pay employees for results in a more flexible system that can accommodate changes in mission and employee needs.

“Where is the incentive in performing better than your colleagues when little is done to recognize those efforts?” Niehuas asked.

But federal employees have already given too much in pay freezes and pension contribution increases, according to J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

He said for too long federal employees have been used as an ATM to pay for other budget needs and is opposed to a new system.

“These years have been relentless and unjustifiably harsh on federal employees and their families,” Cox said.

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