Close followers of the Trump administration’s priorities for federal workforce management would find little surprising in the recently released White House budget request for fiscal year 2021.
The request reiterated calls for both a consolidation of the General Services Administration and Office of Personnel Management and an introduction of workforce pay, benefits and training policies that would reshape how the federal government recognizes employee performance.
“The things that are newest in here, they reflect the continuation of what we’ve attempted to do over the last couple of years around the workforce,” said Margaret Weichert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, in a Feb. 10 press call.
“We have continued to pursue funding of some of the core elements of the President’s Management Agenda and, so, perhaps not surprisingly, in year four of an administration there’s not a lot of net new ideas.”
The Trump administration’s focus on performance-based compensation centered frequently on results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which found that a majority of feds don’t feel that high-quality work is meaningfully recognized. The most recent iteration of that survey confirmed those results.
So the administration aimed to meet Congress and employee groups in the middle with this particular proposal, calling for a 1 percent across-the-board increase to federal pay, combined with an increase on the caps for the performance pay pool, which was capped at 1.5 percent of the total salaries of an agency’s employees.
“We’ve added an additional one percent on top of that. So if an agency spent 1.5 percent on performance and awards-oriented compensation increases in 2021, they would be able to spend 2.5 percent in addition to the across-the-board pay increase. So you could conceive of up to a 3.5 percent pool that would be available for rewarding and increasing pay to our employees,” Weichert said.
But that proposal, despite its theoretical parity with the 3.5 percent across the board pay bump proposed in the House, has been highly criticized for coming with the requirement that feds contribute one percent more to their retirement each year, until the contributions are split 50-50 with their agency.
“Why must President Trump start every budget cycle with a slash-and-burn approach to federal government?” National Treasury Employees Union National President Tony Reardon said in a statement.
“Just like the last three years, NTEU will work with our allies on Capitol Hill to defeat these harmful proposals and ensure that federal employees are honored for their public service with fair pay raises and adequate resources for their agencies.”
The proposed OPM-GSA merger, too, has been consistently opposed by Congress, which included a provision in the last funding bill that barred the agency from enacting such a merger and called for the agency to commission a study on the best method to improve operations at OPM.
“Its insistence on pursuing the elimination of the Office of Personnel Management, even after Congress has prohibited it from doing so, is a clear waste of time and blatant disregard for resources that could be directed toward identifying realistic and feasible improvements to OPM operations,” said National Active and Retired Federal Employees National President Ken Thomas in a statement.
So why pursue the same policies that Congress has repeatedly rejected?
“I think that there’s a fervent belief that it’s the right thing to do, and so re-proposing it may give the administration another shot to get that done. I don’t think that’s likely to happen, but it does reinforce the logic behind the proposal and gives the administration one more year to argue its case,” said Robert Shea, principle of public sector at Grant Thornton and former OMB official.
For OMB, there is a chance that Congress can be convinced to see the administration’s perspective, however slim. The primary criticism of the OPM-GSA merger came down to a lack of evidence to support why such a change was necessary.
“We in no way, shape or form will be bucking the spirit or the mechanics of what was included in the NDAA language associated with the study of OPM and GSA,” said Weichert.
"We actually are very confident that study will show what we already know, which is that almost every large government in the world — both state and at a national level — already has integrated management capabilities that are very similar to what we’ve already proposed.”
A fourth-year president also has only but so much space to fight for new initiatives.
“That is something that probably does align with an election-year budget, because starting big, new initiatives are not likely to make a lot of progress in advance of an election,” said Shea.
Meanwhile, widespread cuts to civilian agencies under the proposed 2021 budget are unlikely to be as severe in actuality as the proposal lays out.
“Those guys ought to go to bed warmly and comfortably, knowing that those cuts won’t be enacted,” said Shea.