OF THE PEOPLE

NAPA adds to the chorus for civil service reform

Ira Hobbs

The federal CIO Council has long contended that the General Schedule system for classifying and setting salaries of federal IT workers is broken. But for many months, the council has been singing solo in a cavernous arena with few listeners.

Another important voice has joined us to sing essentially the same song. And the audience is growing.

Recently the National Academy of Public Administration released its much-anticipated report outlining steps the government should take to attract and retain the kind of skilled IT work force necessary to deliver the government into the age of the Internet. The study was sponsored by the CIO Council and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. It focused on the pay system and related human resources management issues.

The report highlighted numerous problems facing the federal government, many of which GCN readers are familiar with: IT professionals are in short supply. Half of federal IT workers are eligible to retire within 10 years. A significant pay gap exists between the federal and private sectors. The federal recruitment system is slow and rigid, the classification system inflexible and out of date. The federal government neither invests enough in continuous learning nor rewards good performance.

NAPA recommends that the government establish a market-based, pay-for-performance compensation system for IT employees. Simply put, NAPA would scrap the General Schedule in favor of four broad pay bands. It would correlate base pay to that of the private market.

NAPA would eliminate across-the-board pay increases in favor of a dual-track system so employees can be rewarded for their technical expertise without being forced into managerial and supervisory roles.

These are far-reaching proposals. To smooth the transition, NAPA would let current employees opt in or out of the new system.

As if on cue, just a few days before the NAPA report was released, Kay Cole James, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said that the Bush administration is also looking to change the General Schedule classification system, and not just for IT employees. She told a group of federal human resources officials that the image of civil service as merely an undifferentiated force of mediocre workers intent on 30-year careers has got to go, along with the systems that support it.

The administration is planning to propose legislation that would allow, but not force, agencies to adopt the kind of pay banding, rewards-based approach NAPA recommends.

OPM's conclusion that the current system is broken was music to the ears of those of us on the CIO Council.

NAPA's conclusions don't represent merely our opinion but the informed opinion of nonpartisan professionals whose only goal is to improve government performance.

Now the real battle will begin. Recognizing that the system is broken is one thing. Summoning the political will and consensus to fix it is quite another. More voices are needed before this song makes it to the top of the charts.

Ira Hobbs is deputy chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.

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