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GAO is Wrong: Job Classification Cannot Be Fixed

It is the most antiquated and bureaucratic of all federal HR practices.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro recently sent out reminder letters to agencies that have not acted on General Accountability Office “high priority” recommendations. One that caught my attention relates to the need to improve the federal job classification system. GAO believes it should be consistent with “the attributes of a modern, effective classification system.” Government’s problem is that nothing “modern” exists—at least nothing compatible with the General Schedule.

If elected officials were asked where this falls on the list of government problems, it might be at the bottom. It’s doubtful anyone in Congress or the Office of Management and Budget has devoted more than five minutes to job classification.  

However, the system stands out as the most antiquated and bureaucratic of all federal HR practices. The logic of assigning jobs to grades goes back at least to the Classification Act of 1923. Since 1949, it's been the basis for determining “fair pay” as defined by legislation.  

But as the Dodaro letter points out, “Almost since the General Schedule (GS) system was established . . . questions have been raised about its ability to keep pace with the changing nature of government work.”

That severely understates the problems for the Office of Personnel Management as well as agencies trying to administer pay under the GS system. The evidence is obvious in the dates the classification standards were drafted. Many have not been revised in decades, including standards for economist (1963), food inspection (1971), and the equal employment opportunity job series (1980).  

The fact that descriptions are outdated is just one problem. The length of the descriptions is another. The EEO standard, for example, runs on for 60 pages. Outside of government, when someone is asked what they do, they take no more than a minute or two to describe their job. Only in a bureaucracy do you need 60 pages.

To update that standard, OPM would have to collect and validate job information from EEO specialists across government and draft a summary that captures the key job issues in each agency. HR specialists, job incumbents and their managers would have to devote countless hours to producing multiple drafts to assure the words accurately describe today’s jobs. This problem is likely to get worse.

That carries over to requests to reclassify jobs. There was a time when HR specialists—”Classifiers”—took the lead with requests, but those specialists retired years ago. Now, managers and job incumbents are expected to draft the new job description and get the grade change approved. If everyone were candid, that approach might be defensible. But everyone wants their job to be valued and important, and in drafting job descriptions it's easy to inflate a job’s importance. Higher grades benefit both managers and employees. “Grade creep” is a real problem but OPM no longer has the staff to police the classification of jobs.

An added problem is the Factor Evaluation System (FES) to determine where jobs fall in the job hierarchy.  The system dates to the early 1970s. At the time, it was consistent with general practice in the private sector. The practice was known as job evaluation and in older textbooks on salary management the FES would have been referred to as a “point factor” system.  

That system is blind to the job series, making historians equal to physicists and public affairs specialists equal to chemical engineers. All job evaluation methods lock salary programs into the past since they are intended to replicate existing internal salary relationships. In theory, jobs should be classified to the same grades year after year. For government those internal relationships were defined 70 years ago.  

The 1990 recession prompted industry to start discarding job evaluation systems as costly and bureaucratic. The widely used systems were then decades old. They prevented employers from responding to labor market developments. Recent surveys of salary management practices ignore the practice completely, implicitly recognizing it’s no longer relevant.

Today, in other sectors, employers rely on a far simpler approach, using market pay data to assign a job to a range where they will be paid competitively. If a survey shows a job is paid $60,000, its slotted in the range where that is close to the midpoint. It takes a few minutes instead of weeks or months. It’s simple, easy to understand and justify, and since it’s based on data, far less contentious.

Government’s staffing problems would be far less serious if employees and applicants had the assurance their compensation was fully competitive. (Noncompetitive salaries are only part of the problem.)

Dodaro’s letter referred to a 2014 recommendation that OPM “use prior studies and lessons learned from demonstration projects and alternative systems to examine ways” to improve the GS system. The demos and alternative systems, however, have not been based on the 15-grade GS system. The common model is based on salary bands that combine GS ranges; within the bands salary increases are based on employee performance and competence. Significantly, the GAO salary program is one of the successes.

It's worth repeating that program model originated when the commanding officer at Navy’s China Lake Weapons Station decided he was unwilling to spend two years reclassifying jobs following a merger. He told his HR staff they had to find a better answer. They did—a banded program is a variation on the common college faculty salary framework.

In those programs, job classification is quite different, the emphasis is on an employee’s career stage and their demonstrated growth and competence. Career ladders commonly have three or four stages: entry level, developmental, full performance and with knowledge jobs, and expert. Classification is based on an employee’s career level. Employees progress as they grow and demonstrate enhanced competence. That is far more flexible and practical. The National Academy of Public Administration and the Partnership for Public Service have both recommended that approach. It’s a proven model.

It's time to rethink all of this. Start with the format for job descriptions. The common outline originated in the era of scientific management and starts with a statement of purpose, followed by a listing of “important, regular, and recurring duties and responsibilities.” (That’s from The Classifier’s Handbook, vintage 1991.) Although forgotten today, the format was originally developed for use with manual jobs and the purpose was control. To this day, OPM describes “Controls Over the Position” after the duties.  Optional Form 8 (revised in January 1985) is to be used for securing approval. The last step is to “Type the description on plain bond paper” and attach to the form for submission. That made sense—in 1985.

Every step in government’s HR practices needs to be evaluated for “value added.” The classification system is a lost cause.