OPM wants to settle the fed salary debate

Thursday - 6/17/2010, 7:05am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Office of Personnel Management director John Berry wants to once and for all settle the question of whether federal employees are overpaid compared to the private sector.

He says the flood of recent news stories shows that there is no standard way to compare the public and private sectors. So, Berry has requested some help.

"I have asked our statisticians, along with the Bureau of Labor Statistics statisticians, with the Office of Management and Budget's statisticians along with some neutral parties like the Administrative Conference of the U.S. and the National Academy of Public Administration to come together and see if we can rationally settle this," says Berry during the Executive Update 2010 conference sponsored by the Senior Executives Association in Washington.

"Everybody has their formula, so everyone is like 'my formula is right and your formula is wrong.' If people of goodwill come together and we really are genuine about this, we really should be able to craft a formula that has credibility anywhere."

Berry says he wants to settle the issue instead of it being debated in the press.

"My challenge to them is help work with us to build an approach that will have good credibility and integrity that can withstand any blow," he says. "We are taking this very seriously because we do have a credibility problem right now and need to deal with it in a rationale manner."

Berry didn't give a time frame for when this research would be finished.

For some, the evidence couldn't come fast enough. Over the last month, lawmakers have been trying to freeze federal employee pay at every chance they got.

Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) offered amendments to the tax extenders legislation that would freeze the pay of federal employees and cap the number of employees. Thune's amendment also would attempt to collect back taxes from federal employees, while Coburn's would suspend all non-essential travel, reduce unnecessary printing by non-Defense agencies and sell off unused properties.

"By freezing the total number of employees within federal agencies, Congress will help agencies increase the productivity of their employees and encourage greater accountability within the federal workforce," Coburn says in a release.

Members of the Senior Executive Service also are facing pay challenges, but these are real, according to audience members at the conference.

One SESer asked Berry if the fact that the top level of pay for an employee under the General Schedule system-GS-15, step 10-is more than the lowest level of the SES is causing a recruitment problem?

Berry says the evidence isn't clear yet, but he, OMB and Congress recognize this is lack of pay differential is a problem.

"We are going to have to wrestle with this problem and deal with some separation at some point," he says. "My hope is as we work with these broader issues with the Senior Executives, as we put together a package this would be one piece to address this because over time that will dramatically affect recruitment."

Berry says this is one issue OPM is working with the President's Management Council on to improve the SES.

Other issues include doing away with the Qualifications Review Board, which certifies the executive core qualifications of SES applicants, and giving SESers the tools and training needed to be successful.

Berry also says he is actively interviewing candidates to run the new SES office in OPM. He announced the new entity last August to consolidate functions spread across several different offices. Berry says the new office will include outreach and management of the Qualifications Review Board.

"We are standing up the office, it's been a little slower than I like because we've had a hard time finding the superstar I want to lead," he says. "We've had a competition and had a number of candidates to interview. If I don't find them in this round I will start over because I feel it's too important of a slot to just fill. I want to find someone who can be real bridge builder and defender of the interests of the senior executives."

Berry also mentioned that the phase two of reforming the federal hiring process will make it easier to bring students into the government and improve the diversity of the workforce.

An interagency task force led by OPM deputy director Christine Griffin is developing recommendations to increase the diversity of the workforce this fall. OPM will present the suggestions to President Obama.

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