Some agencies want to set their own pay scales
In years past, a uniform civil service pay scale existed throughout government. It had
locality pay to level the bumps between high-cost areas such as New York and low-cost
areas such as Arkansas.
Favored agencies with missions considered attractive and important, such as the Defense
Department, were yoked into a single harness with agencies performing more mundane
activities, such as the Office of Personnel Management or the General Services
Administration, and with agencies disdained in certain ideological quarters, such as the
Treasury Department's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Through the 1980s, as civil service pay scales fell increasingly out of sync with those
of the private sector, agencies pushed a politically unpopular rectification of the pay
system. Equality again had its virtues because favored agencies were not in a position to
obtain relief for themselves alone.
Looking back only a few years, the exceptions to the civil service pay scale were
limited. But today the wheels have fallen off the civil service bus and the engine is
being lifted out of its chassis. Individual agencies, such as the Security and Exchange
Commission and Federal Aviation Administration, have gotten the authority to cut
themselves loose from the civil service scale and pay greater wages. Their argument has
some merit. Namely, government pay scales have not remained competitive with those in
certain areas of the economy, hindering the government's ability to recruit or retain top
Information technology professionals are in that category. But the success of the
agencies that cut loose has opened the floodgates of special pleading. Many agencies that
enjoy public prestige are standing in line asking for exceptions or exemptions to be able
to pay higher wages.
The case can be made for granting greater flexibility to agencies for some government
jobs. Easily justifiable, for example, are bigger salaries for chief information officers
at benchmark agencies such as DOD, Social the Security Administration and IRS. People with
equal skills in the private sector are paid two or three times more than government
The problem is that IRS, an agency under ideological attack, might not be given such
authority, but other, less controversial agencies will.
The end result is that a civil service that started like a uniform Yugoslavia will end
up encompassing poor sisters like Bosnia and rich ones like Croatia. Some agencies may end
up with even less flexibility or lower pay scales.
Political losers also include the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and
Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Their core missions have included enforcing the
unified system while fending off this very pleading by single agencies.
There is, of course, a common thread running through both the demise of the civil
service system and the Balkanization of the single procurement policy. The 1970s and early
1980s saw a significant achievement in procurement through the creation of the Federal
Acquisiton Regulations. The tug-of-war between agencies seeking their own procurement
systems and the weight of a single governmentwide procurement system is a constant
Policy currently tilts toward giving agencies more flexibility in the form of
individual procurement systems with reduced centralized review. As agencies diverge in
practice, they complicate the ability of small businesses without sophisticated contract
and legal shops to adjust. Although flexibility has its virtues, the question remains
whether the balancing of public policy is being well articulated.
Either way, the stakes are high for information technology managers both in and out of
government. There has been a persistent drain of information technology talent from the
government to industry. Perhaps higher pay and greater flexibility are just what the
government needs to keep good civil servants. If so, the largess ought to be spread
Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate the atomization of civil service and procurement
systems before Congress and well-meaning agency managers dismantle the painfully developed
Stephen M. Ryan is a partner in the Washington law firm of Brand, Lowell & Ryan.
He has long experience in federal information technology issues.