Many Federal Job Descriptions Are Dated


The decades-long effort to modernize 420 federal job classifications would benefit from improved data tracking on which jobs are too last-century, the Government Accountability Office reported on Tuesday.

Though the Office of Personnel Management has paid heed to its charge of maintaining a General Schedule that is simple, flexible, fair and transparent, “it falls short in implementation,” the GAO wrote in a report to leaders on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

 “Classifying occupations and developing position descriptions in the GS system requires officials to maintain an understanding of the individual position and the nuances between similar occupations,” the auditors wrote in describing a status quo in which all agencies use the same, consistent standards to embody transparency and internal equity. But “without this understanding, the transparency and internal equity of the system may be inhibited, as agency officials may not be classifying positions consistently, comparable employees may not be treated equitably and the system may seem unpredictable,” the report said.

The GS system's standardized set of 420 occupations are grouped in 23 occupational families within the statutorily-defined 15 grade level system that effects hiring, pay, planning, budgets, training and the career ladder. OPM is responsible for establishing new standards and revising existing ones after consulting with agencies. 

From 2003 to 2014, OPM established 14 new occupational standards and revised almost 20 percent of the occupational standards, GAO said. But auditors noted that “there was no published review or update of 124 occupations since 1990” and faulted OPM for not systemically tracking and prioritizing the remaining occupational standards for review.

Auditors acknowledge that some of the system’s goals—adaptability, internal equity, transparency—are “at odds with one another so fully achieving one attribute comes at the expense of another.”

What also complicates OPM’s task is that the proportion of federal employees covered under alternative personnel systems such as those for air traffic controllers and for higher-paying so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. The portion of the white-collar federal workforce covered by alternative personnel systems increased from 6 percent to 21 percent from 1988 to 2013.

GAO has criticized OPM’s approach before, and studies going back at least to 1991 have said the GS system doesn’t reflect the modern workforce.

GAO recommended that OPM work with stakeholders to examine ways to modernize the classification system; develop a strategy to track and prioritize occupations for review and updates; and develop cost-effective methods to ensure agencies are classifying positions correctly.

OPM partially concurred with two of the recommendations.  “Based on the needs of agencies individually and collectively,” wrote OPM Associate Director Mark Reinhold, “OPM systematically tracks and prioritizes updates to the occupational standards. OPM works with multiple stakeholders, including the Chief Human Capital Officers Council and an interagency classification workgroup.”

(Image via Pixsooz/

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