OPM chief: Talk about the pay system, not salaries

Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James doesn't want to talk about whether federal employees should be paid more. Instead, she wants to talk about the system under which federal employees get paid.

In an interview with Government Executive last week, James said a new OPM report on federal pay should open a debate on reforming the General Schedule-the system under which most federal employees are paid-and the rules and regulations that govern federal compensation.

When the OPM report was issued last month, federal union leaders and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the biggest issue in federal pay is that government workers make less money than workers in the private sector make. James said she doesn't want to talk about the alleged salary gap. "This is a discussion about the system of how we pay people," James said. "I have to pull people back [to that discussion.] They want to talk about how we're not making enough money."

The report, "A Fresh Start for Federal Pay: The Case for Modernization," looks at the history of the General Schedule, the government's white-collar pay system. The report argues that the General Schedule and federal pay rules don't let managers base raises on performance as much as they should be able to. The General Schedule also pays people based on job descriptions that were appropriate for a workforce full of clerks in 1949, but not for today's workforce of highly skilled professionals in a wide range of fields.

"The 'a-ha moment' for me was when I realized the classification system we operate under hasn't changed since 1949," James said. "Our current system is in dire need of an overhaul."

People need to understand the current pay rules, James said. "There is much mythology about our current compensation system," she said. "Urban legend abounds." For example, she said, the current system is more flexible than many federal managers and supervisors seem to think. James said she is concerned that supervisors don't have the right training to use existing flexibilities to manage their employees.

James said she wants people to read the report and then write op-eds, talk with each other about reform options and search for issues on which there is general consensus. She doesn't have a deadline for coming up with specific reforms, but James said ideas for reform won't languish during her tenure.

"You know me better than that," James said. "We've already gotten more done in seven months than other people got done in 10 years…. Yeah, something's going to get done."

OPM officials plan to hold a briefing on Wednesday to discuss pay reform with reporters.

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