OPM nominee favors giving agencies pay flexibilities

The government needs to consider giving agencies more opportunities to use pay strategically when recruiting and retaining federal employees, President Bush's pick to head the Office of Personnel Management said Thursday. As head of the agency charged with overseeing federal employees' pay and benefits, Kay Coles James said she would focus on helping agency leaders creatively use pay and other incentives already in place to attract people to public service. James said attracting and retaining talented employees to the federal government will be her top priority as OPM director. "I want to see what we can do within the parameters of what we already have," James said Thursday during her confirmation hearing before a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee. "If we need new policies or new technology, we will get them." James emphasized the importance of striking a balance between finding creative ways to attract people and maintaining fairness within the government's merit-based system. "We must give agencies flexibility, but also protect the integrity of the merit-based system," said James, who served in the first Bush administration as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Health and Human Services Department and as associate director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. When lawmakers asked whether she supported pay parity between military personnel and civil servants, James said she supported President Bush's budget. Bush's 2002 budget proposes a 4.6 percent raise for military personnel and a 3.6 percent average raise for federal civilians. "I trust the military will advocate for competitive pay for its employees, as I will advocate for employees in the civil service," said James. She acknowledged that federal pay needs to be competitive with other types of salaries to attract and retain a talented workforce, but said a "one-size-fits-all" approach may not be appropriate. "I think it will be important to take the conclusions reached by the President's workforce planning and restructuring initiative into account before deciding upon an overall strategy to ensure that the government offers competitive salaries," James said. James gave a similar response to questions about pay caps in the ranks of the Senior Executive Service. She said pay 'compression' is a serious issue, but stopped short of saying she supported lifting pay caps on members of the Senior Executive Service. "I recognize that there are some serious inequities with regard to pay compression," James said. The current base pay plus locality pay for those at the top of the Senior Executive Service is $133,700. Lawmakers quizzed James on several other issues having an impact on federal employees. They included:

Labor-management partnerships: In January, Bush dissolved the labor-management partnership council created by President Clinton in 1993. James, who supported Bush's decision to give agencies and unions the choice to form partnerships, pledged to work closely with unions during her tenure. "We share many common goals," James said. "We won't always agree, but we will disagree respectfully; unions will always have a seat at the table." Contraceptive health coverage: In April, the Bush administration proposed ending a requirement that health insurance firms offer birth control coverage to federal employees. James said that although she supported the President, she admitted that she did not know the rationale behind the proposal. "I believe that the real priority is preserving the flexibility and choices offered to federal employees in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program," James said.

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