Lawmakers grill GAO chief over pay decisions

David Walker says discontent over changes stems from transition to new kind of compensation system. David Walker says discontent over changes stems from transition to new kind of compensation system. Christopher Rossi/Landov
At a joint hearing Tuesday, members of House and Senate subcommittees overseeing the federal workforce questioned a compensation study Government Accountability Office chief David M. Walker used to make pay determinations.

Walker has argued that the study by Watson Wyatt indicated some GAO analysts were overpaid, providing the grounds for the agency to split one of its pay bands and deny across-the-board raises to 308 employees last year. Dissatisfaction over the changes is one of the driving factors behind a unionization effort at the agency.

Charles Fay, professor of human resource management at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, said the problems in the compensation study were "significant," and ranged from the fact that only executives were involved in producing it to the "ambiguous and confusing" documentation of the study process and the resulting pay structure.

"Compensation is an art, not a science," Fay said. "That does not mean that it is, or should be, free of any standards. GAO is noted for the quality of its analyses. It is unfortunate that the same care was not taken with the analysis of its own pay system."

Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia, claimed information submitted to the subcommittee Monday night shows the idea of splitting the pay band -- known as Band II -- "predated the Watson Wyatt study by approximately four years." According to Davis, the concept arose following a job questionnaire administered to GAO employees by the Personnel Decisions Research Institute in 2000.

Walker said the PDRI study determined that Band II should be split because analysts under the band had vastly different roles. In 2002, the agency's Employee Advisory Council and executive committee met to discuss the feasibility of splitting the Band II level, he said. "I knew we had apples, oranges and pears in Band II," he said. "But at the time in July 2003, I didn't know we had analysts who were paid above market."

Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant for Watson Wyatt, testified that the data used in the study, which analyzed GAO employees' pay relative to that of workers with comparable skills and experience at other agencies and outside government, was "robust and credible."

Walker said employee discontent is largely the result of the transition process into the new personnel system, arguing that before he leaves office in 2013, he hopes that all employees will receive the across-the-board increases.

"GAO is not perfect, and it never will be," Walker said.

He also said GAO's budget has not kept pace with inflation since 2003. But Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., questioned whether the agency has budget problems, noting that managing directors and executive committee members at GAO earned up to $20,000 in bonuses last year.

Walker said these employees are not subject to a market-based pay system because Congress only allows senior executives to make a certain amount of money, irrespective of the market. He added that half of senior executives received bonuses ranging from just below $10,000 to more than $20,000.

Curtis Copeland, a specialist at the Congressional Research Service, testified that Walker had promised Congress on numerous occasions in 2003 that, should lawmakers pass legislation allowing personnel changes at GAO, all employees who "met expectations" would receive across-the-board pay increases.

Walker contended that employees were given adequate notice of the payband restructuring and the fact that some would be denied the pay increases. He said that not a single employee complained that he had breached his promise to Congress until after the restructuring, though several employees at the hearing said they had complained beforehand, both to upper level managers and to one another.

Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, recommended that lawmakers repeal or substantially revise the authority given to the Comptroller General under the human capital reform act that allowed the personnel changes. He also asked that Congress decline to provide Walker any additional discretion over personnel policy, such as the ability to set reduction-in-force rules independent of those administered by the Office of Personnel Management. Junemann also recommended that Congress consider requiring an independent review of the criteria and processes GAO management used to implement the Band II split. Meanwhile, Norton questioned the appeals process at the watchdog agency, highlighting the fact that its appeals bodies are appointed by the Comptroller General -- the same person against whom such personnel complaints are filed. Norton recommended that members of Congress appoint officials to the appeals bodies.

Davis also asked witnesses whether it would be a "legislative stretch" for Congress to ensure that all GAO employees were provided pay adjustments. "You could condition the use of funds to the agency and provide those pay adjustments to employees," said Jon Shimabukuro, an attorney with CRS. "I don't think that would be inappropriate."

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