President Trump's budget proposal for 2020 includes significant changes for federal pay and hiring.

President Trump's budget proposal for 2020 includes significant changes for federal pay and hiring. GPO

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New Pay Systems, More Temporary Employees Headline Civil Service Reforms in Trump’s Budget

Under a never-before-used provision of the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, the White House promises action on special pay systems this year.

The Trump administration will issue new pay systems for certain occupations this year, part of a slew of civil service reforms it plans including hiring changes, easier firing, more interns and the “reskilling” of employees in antiquated positions.

President Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget, additional details of which the White House released on Monday, promised regulations establishing the new pay systems for “special occupations” later this year. They will focus on jobs in which “the General Schedule classification and pay system are not aligned to labor-market realities.” The president’s pay agent, made up of the directors of the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the Labor Department secretary, is authorized to issue the special pay systems under a never-before-used provision of the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act.

In announcing the plans last year, acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert said the first job category to receive special pay consideration will be economists. That will be followed by others “working in high-risk, mission critical and emerging occupations,” such as those in STEM fields. The pay agent will meet with agencies, labor groups and other interested parties before publishing its proposals in the Federal Register. It will subsequently hold public hearings and notify Congress.

The administration also said it would seek “further statutory flexibilities” with a hiring process it deemed overly complicated. It will seek to use more temporary hiring to bring “highly qualified experts” to the federal government and expand the limits of temporary and term hires. The White House included in its budget a proposal to eliminate retirement pensions for term employees in favor of more generous contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan, the government's version of a 401(k) retirement savings plan.

President Trump also proposed creating an “industry exchange” that would enable more nonprofit employees and academics to serve on federal projects in a temporary capacity. He also suggested boosting the number of federal interns, noting various legislative changes have led to a drop in the number of such positions from 35,000 in 2010 to 4,000 in 2018. The White House proposed removing a cap on the direct appointment of interns.

Rooting Out Poor Performers

In addition to the hiring reforms, the administration once again said agencies need more authority to quickly remove poorly performing and badly behaving employees. Trump issued an executive order last year to hasten the firing process, but most of its provisions were struck down in federal court. The administration has appealed that decision.

The federal government “must have a performance orientation that enables civil servants to achieve agency missions in an effective and efficient manner while holding them accountable,” the White House said. “Although many federal workers pursue and attain excellence, they do so despite, and not because of, the incentives built into the current system.”

The administration also renewed its push for “reskilling” federal employees who work in positions that could be easily automated. Transactional work, such as processing forms, is “going away,” the White House said. It highlighted the administration’s cybersecurity reskilling academy as an example of the progress it has already made.

Congress has shown little appetite for large-scale civil service reforms over the last several decade. By taking a more piecemeal approach, however, the administration hopes to start to patch up a system it has deemed entirely broken.

“The administration is committed to doing its part to facilitate a work culture and a personnel system that best enables and inspires federal civil servants to serve the public to the fullest extent of their commitment and their abilities,” the White House wrote. “The administration looks forward to working with the Congress and other stakeholders in developing a civil service system that meets the expectations of the citizens it serves.”