The hoopla about broad banding

letters@govexec.com

Like many ideas in federal management, a lot of people are talking about broad banding, but not many are doing it.

Most federal agencies still classify their employees under the General Schedule, a 15-level classification system with 10 steps in each level. But the Clinton administration would like to give them the option of using more simplified systems with fewer grades and steps. For example, one demonstration project at the Defense Department has converted the General Schedule into four broad bands (also known as "pay bands").

Under the administration's proposal, which is part of a civil service reform package under consideration, all agencies would be allowed to create their own broad band systems. Right now, only specially approved demonstration projects, like the one at the Defense Department, are allowed to replace the General Schedule with broad bands.

"The successes and lessons of those projects have been well established," Office of Personnel Management Director Janice Lachance has said in several recent speeches. "In our view, it is time to follow through on the original intent of the demonstration project authority and make successful strategies available on a governmentwide basis."

Under the administration's proposal, agencies would not have to switch to broad banding. But those that want to switch could.

The problem with the General Schedule, Lachance and others contend, is that it locks employees into a rigid classification system that makes it hard for managers to adjust pay rates based on demand for certain skills. It also makes it more difficult for managers to reward employees for strong performance.

The Defense Department project lists three major benefits of broad banding:

  • It reduces the number of steps, simplifying the promotion process and eliminating substantial paperwork for employees to advance to another level of work and pay;
  • It allows for more competitive recruitment of high-quality candidates at differing rates within the appropriate broad band levels; and
  • It allows employees to move within bands to higher levels of pay, based on performance, without going through a competitive promotion process.
The Clinton administration's draft proposal for broad banding authority includes several caveats. For starters, minimum and maximum pay rates in any new broad band system would have to be tied to the minimum and maximum rates of the General Schedule. In addition, if a manager moved an employee to a lower band as a disciplinary action, the employee could appeal that action.

Other limitations include: no employee's pay could be reduced during the transition from the General Schedule to a broad band system; locality pay rates would have to be used; OPM would have the power to approve or disapprove broad banding plans.

Critics of broad banding are wary of giving managers so much control over pay rates. One advantage of the General Schedule is that it provides a standardized, if rigid, basis for determining how much employees are paid. Some critics also say that under broad banding, salaries tend to shift toward the top of the bands, so payroll costs can increase substantially.

The administration is meeting next week with employee groups to discuss broad banding and other civil service reform ideas.

Free Friday Off Next Week

Even if you're not one of the 95,000 federal employees who got a free day off on Friday, Apr. 23, because of the NATO gathering in Washington, the Office of Personnel Management's announcement of the free day off may have gotten you thinking about taking a three-day weekend. OPM Director Janice Lachance has issued a question-and-answer sheet explaining the rules for Apr. 23. The Q&A is available at www.opm.gov/oca/compmemo/1999/natoqa.htm.

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