Reform yoga: Bend over and smile

Monday - 7/21/2014, 2:00am EDT

When you are part of an organization that is being "reformed," you want to be on the team making the new rules, not part of the gang that will work under them.

Being a reformer rather than a reformee is nearly always better, and safer. Especially when the reforms involve politicians and outside experts looking at a big, complex career civil service. Like yours.

Over the centuries, in reform-after-reform, the rule of thumb is to bend-over-and-await-further-instructions. Like with yoga, or any effort to reach a higher level. And it is especially true when the reforms are aimed at the way people inside an organization are ranked, promoted and paid. And whether the reformers have an agenda that goes beyond making the organization more efficient and less expensive.

Maybe the first American government reform, after the revolution itself, came under President Thomas Jefferson. He looked around and found that most of the feds around him were appointed by his political predecessors (and enemies). Later on, Andrew Jackson got rid of the rascals, replacing them with his own rascals.

We've been at it ever since.

Despite many more recent attempts to make the government better, leaner and more efficient, the last "successful" effort came with President Jimmy Carter's Civil service Reform Act in 1978. One, as it turned out, of his major successes. Among other things it abolished the top three grades of the career civil service, GS-16, -17 and -18, in favor of the Senior Executive Service. Incumbent super-graders had two choices: Move to the SES or rot on the promotion vine. Most switched to the SES, which was supposed to provide more job mobility (except it mostly hasn't).

The short-lived National Security Personnel System at the Defense Department was launched by the Bush administration but later squashed by Congress and the Obama administration. Reforming a reform!

Currently, Congress and the administration, for maybe very different reasons, are looking at an overhaul of the civil-service system. Specifically, they are wondering whether the remaining 15 civil-service grades are still needed. Do they reflect federal work in the 21st century? Does the GS system encourage bosses to promote people to give them hidden pay raises?

Earlier this week, Federal News Radio reported a "growing consensus" (in Congress and the administration) that the pay-personnel system used by the federal government since 1949 "is showing its age, and long overdue for a major facelift."

Many people say the GS grade system encourages "grade creep" by allowing managers to give employees raises (via promotion) even during times of a pay freeze. The Federal Times reports that during the time of the White House-congressional pay freeze, the number of federal workers in Grades 12 through 15 rose from 42 percent of the workforce in 2009 to 51 percent by 2013. That's a pay range of between $80,000 and $155,500.

More recently, under OPM Director John Berry, who had ready access to the White House, the Office of Personnel Management announced a proposed new reform. It would eliminate the 15 GS grades and replace them with three levels (Apprentice, Journeyman and Expert). Individuals would have rank, like the military, regardless of how many (or few) people they supervised. It seemed good to go in 2009. But it didn't. For details of what didn't happen, click here.

With Congress preoccupied with the midterms and about to adjourn for the summer, there is little chance the GS system will be "reformed" anytime soon. As usual this proposed reform, like others, is worth watching. But not, at this stage, worth worrying about.

A look ahead

On Monday, I'll join "For Your Benefit" hosts, Bob Leins and Tammy Flanagan, for a continuation of their annual mid-year discussion on the state of the federal workforce and recent events impacting federal employment. Our discussions will include beginning career through retirement thoughts and comments.

Later, they'll be joined by special guests, Betty Koger and Linda Force, who are retired federal employees. They will share a few highlights from their federal careers, their thoughts and suggestions on the attraction to begin a federal career and the transition to retirement and life after retirement!

Listen if you can (1500 AM or online), and if you have questions, you can call in during the show at (202) 465-3080.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

Hiram Stevens Maxim, an American expatriate inventor in England, invented both the first machine gun (in the late 1800s) and the curling iron.

(Source: 11 Points)


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