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Government’s IT Problem is Not Limited to Systems

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Two recent headlines caught my attention.  One, in FCW, reported that “Obama bemoans obsolete tech in budget request.” The second, in Federal Times, reported, “Budget projects ‘largest relative pay cut’ for feds.” While FCW quoted a comment by President Obama about the “400 people in the Social Security Administration whose sole job is to continually deal with this ancient software,” employees are rarely mentioned in discussions about IT modernization. There is no discussion in the Analytical Perspectives section of the president’s 2017 budget request or in recent Office of Management and Budget releases that suggest how the proposed investments in new technology would affect the IT workforce.

It goes without saying (although I will say it anyway) that if federal technology is obsolete, the employees who maintain those systems are dinosaurs. As far back as 1990 in discussions related to federal pay reform, I recall that the issue of Cobol programmers caused a few smiles. Government’s problem of course is that new technology will have to be maintained. It cannot be a surprise that government is not an “employer of choice” for IT talent. Frankly, as long as IT specialists are paid under the General Schedule system, government will not be able to attract and retain top talent.

Maybe it’s coincidental but a few days ago I was asked by an OPM librarian if I could provide a copy of a 1998 report that I authored, “Engineering Salaries in R&D,” that compared federal salaries with pay levels in industrial R&D organizations. I learned she was responding to a request from someone at the Defense Department. I have only a vague memory of the report. It has no value today.

It’s understandable that an official would want to see how federal salaries compare with market rates.  The current Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys were not intended to generate market pay data. That needs to be repeated—the BLS surveys are unable to show which jobs are underpaid and those that might be overpaid. 

The Office of Personnel Management has added a number of statistical Band-Aids to make the data usable. It’s now been two decades since BLS terminated the survey that was similar to those commonly used by other employers. The simple fact is that no employer outside of government would even consider using BLS data to manage its pay program. Competing for talent—especially in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math—will continue to be a problem, and is likely to get worse.

Outside of government, the analyses to understand competitive pay levels are based on simple, ‘stat 101’ descriptive statistics—means, medians, percentiles, etc. That’s universal in other sectors. For reasons that are not clear, OPM relies on multi-variate analyses and the result obfuscates what should be easy to understand pay comparisons. The data are useless for decision making. The discussion of federal pay in the Analytical Perspectives volume of the budget mysteriously is silent on the normal focus in completing a market analyses—job families, benchmark jobs and career levels.

That is central to the annual pay gap argument. The BLS gap analyses have lost credibility. There may only be two people in Washington who claim to understand the methodology, and one is bluffing.  It is impossible to identify jobs that are paid above or below market. That’s also true of the CBO analysis as well as those completed by the think tanks.  Neither side will ever win this argument with their current analyses. 

The proposed 1.6 percent pay increase for FY 2017 is low but then the annual 2.1 percent increase in the Employment Cost Index is also below the increases in larger companies. The ECI percentage may be accurate as a national average for all white collar workers, including those working in mom-and-pop companies and the gamut of not-for-profits, but the best performers in larger companies received significantly larger increases. The best earned increases that were typically 5 percent or more. The 1.6 percent further damages the brand of government.

The workforce chapter acknowledges “the current federal age distribution and potential for a large number of retiring workers poses a challenge” and then goes on to argue this represents “an opportunity to reshape the workforce and to infuse it with new workers excited about government service and equipped with strong management skills, problem-solving ability, technology skills, and fresh perspectives.” 

As reported in Government Executive, the proposed FY 2017 budget would add 30,700 employees.  Presumably that is a net increase after the retirements and resignations. 

Before they finalize the staffing plans, someone from OPM should check on the projected starting salaries for 2016 graduates. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveyed its corporate members and learned the average starting salary for humanities and social science majors is expected to be $46,000+.  The average for computer science majors is projected to be $61,000+.  Those with a Master’s degree will start at $72,000. NACE surveys also show few graduates are interested in government careers.

If Congress agrees to upgrade technology, vendors will be ready with proposals.  Adding staff with the skills to use the technology will not be as simple.  

(Image via SergeyDV/Shutterstock.com)

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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