GAO, scholars push for governmentwide personnel reform guidelines

Congress and the Bush administration should work together to set guidelines to govern any further reform of government personnel rules, according to the Government Accountability Office and the National Academy of Public Administration.

In separate reports issued this week, the two agencies argued that Congress should pass legislation detailing the "core values" that underlie the civil service, the principles to support those core values, and the processes and criteria that agencies would have to meet in order to implement new personnel authorities.

Officials at GAO and the academy were concerned that if Congress continued to pass legislation granting new personnel authorities to agencies one by one, there would be increasing "Balkanization of the civil service" and potential for agencies privileged with more flexibilities to raid their counterparts, said Comptroller General David Walker in a meeting with reporters Wednesday.

In that regard, the reports are critical of the approach taken by Congress and the administration in granting new authorities in 2002 and 2003 to the Defense and Homeland Security departments. Both agencies won the right to waive existing civil service rules, allowing them to set up pay-for-performance systems, disciplinary rules and standards governing management-union relations.

Paul Volcker, who headed a National Commission on the Public Service in 2003, expressed optimism during the briefing that House and Senate leaders would be willing to consider an overarching framework for future personnel reforms. "If this is ever going to get done, this is the time to do it," he said.

GAO and the academy have advocated reforms to the General Schedule system, arguing that its rigid pay and classification rules were established in an era when most government workers were low-level clerks. The system is inappropriate for today's government workforce and puts the government at risk as it seeks to woo top talent.

Pay-for-performance is part of the solution, Walker and Volcker said, and agencies should be encouraged to compete for top workers. At the same time, "We don't want [agencies] raiding [each other], because one agency is in a different structural position," Volcker said.

A new framework for personnel reform should state unequivocally that the civil service is grounded in merit principles and agencies are bound to share information with employees, promote diversity in the workforce, and reward employees based on skills and performance. In addition, the reports emphasized that employee bargaining rights should be protected.

To advance personnel reforms, agencies should demonstrate that they have credible performance management systems to evaluate workers and plans outlining how the new authorities would further agency goals. Agencies also should be able to explain how they would finance personnel system changes.

The Office of Personnel Management should play a key role in determining whether agencies successfully meet these qualifications, the reports added.

"Right now, what we've got is everyone cutting their own deals," said Walker. What is lacking, he said, is a clear delineation of the "core set of values and principles" that define the civil service, "the glue that binds us together."

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