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The Foundation of the GS System Has Become a Sham

The failure of the job classification system affects every HR practice and puts billions of dollars in payroll in question.

The Government Accountability Office in 2001 added strategic human capital management to its list of high risk programs in need of broad reform, a distinction it has retained for two decades. What’s more, auditors noted in their 2021 ranking that it was one of five areas that had “regressed” since the previous assessment in 2019.  

In a 2020 letter to the Office of Personnel Management, U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro made the point that OPM “had 84 open recommendations.” Further, the agency had implemented only three of 18 open priority recommendations. Those recommendations fall into six areas, including improving the federal classification system: 

“Almost since the General Schedule (GS) system was established in 1949, questions have been raised about its ability to keep pace with the evolving nature of government work. Our July 2014 report [recommended that OPM] … examine ways to make the GS system's design and implementation more consistent with the attributes of a modern, effective classification system.” 

Understanding Job Classification

GAO was being polite. When a system is no longer managed as intended, and problems affect an organization’s performance, it needs to be replaced. Since job classification directly controls or influences every HR practice, its failure has broad implications for workforce management. It also affects careers and family incomes. Consider that:

  • Job classification was originally conceived to control salary grades and therefore the pay of GS jobs. But OPM has no way of confirming jobs are graded accurately. “Grade creep” or over grading has been an acknowledged problem for years. That puts billions of payroll dollars in question. Plus, grades and salaries influence the accrual and the costs of benefits.  
  • President Biden’s renewed focus on pay equity should trigger a concern with how female dominated jobs are classified.
  • Grade level decisions control starting salaries as well as special rates. Both play an important role in recruiting. Grades also control the funds available for recruiting, retention and relocation incentives. There have been no studies to assess the impact of those decisions on staffing or on the skills shortages.  
  • The class standards define career ladders and promotion opportunities, influence performance expectations, training and development opportunities, and provide the framework for workforce planning and skills analyses.  
  • The system and an abbreviated version of the Factor Evaluation System also play a central role in Bureau of Labor Statistics salary surveys. The gap analysis methodology precludes understanding if jobs are paid competitively.

It’s not an over statement to argue that 1) any 1949 “system” or practice that has remained largely unchanged is badly outmoded; and 2) the system affects virtually every federal people management practice. Digging into the classification system makes it all too clear it is antiquated, has lost credibility, and there is no reason to expect the problems will be resolved with current approaches.  

A simple way to assess the validity of the system is to look at the dates on the first page of the class standards. One that stands out after the past year is “Public Health Program Specialist Series, GS-0685, issued November 1980.” Three other prominent job series also stand out: General Attorney Series, 1974; Contracting Series, 1983; and Intelligence Series, 1960. 

The standard for professional work in the Physical Science Group was developed in 1997. It covers 18 fields from Astronomy & Space Science to Land Surveying. Further complicating the classification of the jobs in these fields needs to take into account four other classification documents: the Research Grade Evaluation Guide, the Equipment Development Grade Evaluation Guide, the Test and Evaluation Grade Evaluation Guide, and the Research Grants Grade Evaluation Guide. For supervisors, there is also the General Schedule Supervisory Guide.  

The descriptions of the work of employees in each series are also telling. For example, the standard for: “Grade Level Guide for Clerical and Assistance Work” (1989) covers “tasks related to processing actions, records, data, or other information”: 

“In most cases, the clerical and assistance tasks represent the primary purpose of the job; and the keyboard and computer operation tasks are necessary but incidental means to carry out the work … NOTE: Clerical and assistance work as covered by this guide will often include the use of typewriters, word processors, computer terminals, or personal computers as tools in completing tasks.” 

Blue collar jobs are classified under the separate Federal Wage System Job Grading System.

This is all the purview of HR generalists or small consulting firms since the specialists—”classifiers”—retired years ago. There was at one time a Classification and Compensation Society to provide a patina of professionalism but it disappeared nearly two decades ago. 

The story of the first personnel demonstration project, China Lake, is relevant. It involved the merger of two Naval research labs. The HR manager told the commanding officer it would take two years to reclassify the jobs in the new organization. That was unacceptable to the commanding officer, who insisted that HR find a better answer. The answer was replacing the GS system with a simplified set of salary bands, a response that changed the field of salary management.

Today there is no way to know or even estimate how many jobs are accurately classified, something OPM acknowledges. From the Dodaro letter: “OPM officials said OPM has not reviewed any agency's classification program since the 1980s because OPM leadership at the time concluded the reviews were ineffective and time consuming. As a result, OPM has limited assurance that agencies are correctly classifying positions according to standards.” In any other organization that would be shocking but here it's not surprising.

Jobs are not static. Duties change, new systems are adopted and incumbents are expected to master new skills. OPM’s website still mentions “desk audits” as a service to confirm grade accuracy; but it’s doubtful OPM has the capability.

OPM is stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. Its mandate is to administer the GS system as prescribed in statutes, starting with the Classification Act of 1949. In those post war years no one could have anticipated the revolution in the way work and careers are managed, or the emergence of new job specialties like cybersecurity. The approach to classification was no doubt appropriate for that era. But now the system has proven impossible to keep updated and is an impediment to talent management. It also undermines OPM’s credibility.  

Related GAO Recommendations

Going forward, two additional GAO recommendations from the 2019 Dodaro letter are linked to the GS system:  

  • Establish a process to collect governmentwide staffing and competency data as a step in closing the critical skills gap, and
  • Analyze the effectiveness of the special pay authority to improve recruitment and retention.

Salaries and the way salaries are administered are central to both concerns. In other sectors, when staffing problems emerge, one of the first steps would be conducting a market analysis to determine if pay is contributing to the problem. For some reason, OPM seems to resist developing job-specific market data. Special rates may initially help to attract talent but new hires quickly learn their salary will follow the GS annual increase pattern. 

A fourth recommendation is also linked to the need for governmentwide staffing and competency data and the “modern, effective classification system.” It’s the need for “enterprise technological solutions to assist the federal human capital community with human capital analysis.”  

Technology is the key to updating the classification system as well as other human capital practices where job or incumbent information is needed. It was more than three decades ago that computers were first used for job evaluation, the private sector version of classification. In response to the demands for comparable worth in the 1980s, HR consulting firms developed largely automated systems based on multiple regression models that excluded the possibility that gender could affect the grade assignment. A version was developed for government, based on the Factor Evaluation System, but apparently it never gained acceptance. 

Current Job Information is Essential

Job classification cries out for automation. The time-honored—or dishonored—practice relied on interviewing incumbents to understand and document their job duties. Group interviews save time but it’s still extremely time consuming and costly. And not reliable since employees have obvious reasons to overstate what they do. If 10 HR analysts study the same job, the result is 10 different job descriptions.

Then if the focus shifts to job skills or competencies, or to any job information, the documentation process starts all over with different analysts. But with the same validation problems. 

Realistically no one understands jobs, the regular tasks, the skills required, or the steps to resolve problems better than the people performing the jobs. Experienced HR practitioners may ask better questions but incumbents are still the primary source of job information. GAO is correct—the information is essential to effective human capital management.

Now, with job openings and market pay information readily available, the pressure for transparency, the increasingly rapid pace of change and the renewed interest in gender neutral talent practices, employers need to monitor changing job requirements. 

Today, software is available for every area of human capital management. Virtually all job information can be collected quickly and inexpensively by asking employees. A core question is how to access the software. The most practical answer for most organizations and most HR applications is licensing a software-as-a-service application since it’s used sporadically. Job classification, as a prime example, is used only when jobs or work systems are reconfigured.

Rebuilding the workforce will require current job and employee information. Decades old job information is not adequate.

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