OPM director considers overhaul of civil service system

  • Published
  • By Joe Davidson
  • Washington Post
The federal civil service system that has provided employees comfort, and sometimes frustration, for 60 years might not last another one in its current form.

By early summer, the Obama administration plans to propose a transformation of the compensation structure that has ruled the lives of U.S. government employees since Harry S. Truman was their boss.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, is considering what would amount to a major overhaul of the GS, or General Schedule, classification and pay system that began in 1949.

"We need to think about how we can refresh the GS system," he said in an interview, quickly adding: "I don't think anybody is proposing to throw it out."

While Berry said he has nothing on paper yet, the thoughts he shared indicate the administration's serious approach to the way government manages and rewards its employees.

That was demonstrated in the "Improving the Federal Workforce" section of the budget President Obama sent to Congress last week. The document dealt with a broad range of federal employee issues and spent a considerable amount of ink justifying why they get paid as well as they do. Federal workers are, on average, an older and bettereducated lot than people in the private sector, according to the budget document. Nonetheless, other government figures indicate that federal staffers are paid less than employees in similar businessworld positions.

Berry expanded on the budget chapter by discussing a potential renovation of the GS system. Referring to the budget, he said, "We're laying the groundwork for the reform effort."

That reform would have three elements: performance accountability, pay flexibility and professional training that, he said, "will allow our employees to advance in the federal service and grow over the course of their careers."

He mused about eliminating the first two ranks of the 15-grade GS system and adding grades 16 and 17. Berry did not explicitly advocate a pay raise for federal workers during the interview, but those in the added grades presumably would be paid more than the current top rate. He did say that reworking the classification system "could more accurately reflect pay for the categories the federal government is employing today."

When the GS system began, government was "a paper-pushing operation," he said. "It is a much different workforce today, a higher-educated white- collar workforce that is tackling very sophisticated problems, like cyber-security issues, terrorism, financial fraud."

Rather than the present system of rigid and narrow job classifications, Berry would like one that would allow employees more movement within and between agencies, a system with "established ladders so they would know that with the right training and the right effort, they could be promoted."

Berry thinks the GS system does a good job when it comes to paying and treating people fairly. But he doesn't think it adequately ties pay to performance, though "pay for performance" is term he no longer uses because federal union leaders find it profane.

He said he does want a system that focuses more on results than process and more closely links the work of individual employees to the goals of their agencies. Washington needs to "convince the taxpayer that we are holding ourselves accountable to produce results," he said, and that will be directly linked to providing employees greater opportunity for advancement.

A more effective performance-management system, he said, could also result in greater freedom for employees, through such things as increased telework opportunities.

"I'm a strong proponent of breaking the chain to the desk and breaking the chain to the time clock," he said. He wants government to "move in a direction to empower and trust our employees to get the job done . . . and not focus so much on where they're sitting and what hours they're sitting there." But that depends, he said, on being able to better manage performance.

By late spring or early summer, he'll know how dramatic the proposed changes will be. "What we're essentially doing is looking at the whole thing, the whole operation. . . . It hasn't happened in about 50 years."

It shouldn't take until spring for the administration to begin making major repairs to the federal hiring process. Berry said he and Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag "are now in the final stage" of a hiring reform plan that is "working its way to the president of the United States."

That plan, which could take the form of a presidential memorandum or executive order, along with legislation, will amount to "a broadside attack" on the dysfunctional hiring system, he said. "This first step is going to be a powerful one."

Federal hiring problems have become legendary, and Berry wants to be remembered for fixing them. OPM has already implemented a new version of its recruitment and job application Web site, usajobs.gov.

"At the end of the day," he said, "it is probably the most important legacy item I will accomplish."