Next administration should broaden pay range within grades, academics say

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Regardless of who wins the presidential election, the next administration should strengthen the federal workforce by narrowing salary disparities with the private sector through “tailored pay adjustments within the pay system and expanded within-grade pay ranges.”

That’s one of a list of recommendations released Monday in the second of a series of Memos to National Leaders assembled by self-proclaimed pracademics -- academics who also work as practitioners in their field -- writing for the American Society for Public Administration and the National Academy of Public Administration. The new batch of correspondences makes recommendations for strategic recruitment and faster filling of positions habitually left vacant due to the cumbersome presidential appointments process.

Eying a projection that 60 percent of the federal workforce could retire in the next four years, Rex L. Facer II, assistant professor of public finance and management and the Warren Jones fellow in the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University, said federal human resources managers should centralize hiring as a strategic objective to compete better against private sector salaries.

While job-to-job comparisons by the Federal Salary Council show a pay gap as high as 31 percent that favors the private sector, Facer said in a panel discussion featuring two former directors of the Office of Personnel Management, the human capital model that think tanks and the Congressional Budget Office use comes to a contrary conclusion. “But there is consensus,” Facer said, “that the average federal worker gets a wage premium but that federal employees with advanced education get a wage penalty.”

His solution is to expand ranges within General Schedule pay grades. For example, A Grade 11 on general schedule is now a minimum of $50,287 and maximum of $65,371, or a 30 percent range. He would expand the range to 50 percent, minimum of $50,287 to maximum of $75,430. “It will require a fair amount of political capital,” Facer said, but it would reward good employees when raises are not within larger strategic objectives, and because private ranges are 40 percent to 50 percent.

Facer said while OPM has improved hiring with USAJobs, internships, the Human Resources University and technology innovations, the process is still overly complex and has inadequate branding strategies. “In decentralizing, OPM lost sight of its strategic role in hiring from the broad government perspective,” he said.

Jim Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University, noted the broken process for appointments and Senate confirmation resulted in President Obama requiring six months in 2009 to get a full Cabinet; he even had to deal with empty seats during the financial crisis, Pfiffner added. The appointments for a new administration total as many as 7,000, including 800 presidential appointments with Senate confirmation, 800 Senior Executive Service jobs and 1,400 Schedule C jobs, he noted. Even if Obama is reelected, he said, there will be dozens of vacancies leftover at, say, the assistant secretary level.

Pfiffner’s team’s memo recommended the winning candidate keep his transition director on as head of White House personnel; that the director be wary of job seekers working within the Office of Presidential Personnel; that the White House increase resources for the personnel office and that appointees pledge to stay a full term.

The memo cited as one source of delay the multiple forms nominees must complete before their backgrounds are checked by the FBI, Senate and Office of Government Ethics. He recommended curbing the number of Schedule C appointments and improving communication to connect political appointees with “operational levels” so that fewer career appointees are “home alone.” Pfiffner added: “Building trust takes time.”

Janice Lachance, OPM director during the Clinton administration and now on the White House working group on streamlining paperwork for appointees, praised the memos, saying they “clearly articulate the critical issues that will determine the next administration’s success” and adding that they “underline the important management issues that get pushed to the background when other issues make headlines.”

She recalled town hall meetings held in the early 1990s during Vice President Gore’s reinventing government initiative in which OPM was referred to as a “problem” agency that wouldn’t let supervisors manage or let agencies hire or dismiss poor performers. One speaker said, “OPM should be blown up and the earth salted so that it never grows there again,” she recalled. But now, “with the transition from a command-and-control culture to one of consultation, we can now build on real record of achievement.”

Linda Springer, OPM director under President George W. Bush and now a partner at Ernst and Young, showed the audience a binder of emails documenting “bumps in the road” during her two trips through the confirmation process. One, beginning in 2002 took 11 months and the second, in 2005 took five, due to lost paperwork, a change in Senate control, holds by unnamed senators and higher priorities placed on Homeland Security Department appointments.

“Finding qualified candidates is hard,” Springer said. “They must be resilient and be at the right time of their life. The most important considerations are subject-matter expertise, leadership experience and government experience. Not on list are that you worked on the campaign, gave money or know somebody.” In designing the size of the federal workforce, she added, too often the discussion is “backward -- as in we need to reduce the workforce by X percent or Y number.” Instead, Springer said, “we should first decide what it is we want to do, then decide how many people we need. OPM could take a strong role in leading that.”

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