OPM promotes new thinking about federal pay

Thursday - 6/16/2011, 8:05am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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OPM director John Berry on WFED (WFED file photo.)

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

John Berry wants agencies to view the two recent memos the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget issued on federal employee pay as an opportunity, not a penalty.

Berry, director of OPM, said he understands few like the fact that performance bonuses will be limited in fiscal 2011 and 2012 and within grade increases should not be considered automatic. But he said the reminders provide the government with an opportunity during these fiscally tight times.

"The federal government is going to have to continue to tighten its belt and that is going to cause pain," Berry said Wednesday after the monthly National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations meeting in Washington. "We are trying to do that in a responsible, professional manner. This is belt tightening, not eliminating. And it's respective of a process. We are not eliminating bonuses. We are not eliminating within grades. We are making very clear these are tools that ought not be taken for granted."

And, Berry said, by reducing the amount of money agencies are spending, it will cause managers to think about these programs in new ways.

"Are we getting the maximum leverage out of our recognition programs? Are we advancing the right people?" Berry said. "That ought not be by rote."

Berry said the administration was not trying to get ahead of Congress, but managing well within declining resources.

"We are responding to that I think very carefully with a studied approach, that I believe sends clear guidance to both managers and our employees, and I think shows both the Congress and the American public that we are serious about doing a good job," he said. "We get these are tough economic times. We get that it's up to all of us to do a better job in those times to convince people we are being as thoughtful as we can in managing their resources."

Along with the two memos, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) earlier this week asked Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to make every effort to block a current proposal to increase the amount that federal employees contribute to their own pension fund.

Berry said the administration, and especially those involved in negotiating with Congress on raising the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, are keenly aware of Mikulski's concerns.

"We have certainly made them aware of the facts and sensitivity of these issues," he said. "But that being said, they have a tough job. We look forward to seeing where they go."

Berry said the labor-management council was not consulted during the development of the performance or within-grade memos. But OMB and OPM did discuss their plans with employee unions before issuing the memos.

Despite the council's lack of participation in these areas, Berry and other federal and union officials say the labor-management forums are having a positive effect on agencies.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provided one case study Wednesday.

After the financial industry meltdown and Bernie Madoff scandal, the agency had to ramp up its oversight and investigations offices, without any additional resources.

Greg Gilman, a National Treasury Employees Union representative at the SEC, said the union and management worked together to improve how the SEC is organized to deal with the agency's increased oversight requirements.

Gilman said NTEU met with employees and came back to management with proposals.

"Probably the most important of which was a flattening of the management structure in enforcement," Gilman said. "At the time, there were branch chiefs to which four attorneys and accounts would report, and a couple of those branch chiefs would report to an assistant and so on. What we proposed was eliminating that branch chief layer of management, returning those folks as senior people into the bargaining unit to do investigative work."

He added this would address many of the concerns about autonomy and increase the number of investigators.

"We were able to make that proposal early on and that became a major part of the structure of reorganization of enforcement," Gilman said.

Jeff Risinger, the SEC's chief human capital officer, said it would have cost the SEC $8 million-to-$10 million to hire about 40 people to boost the investigations office.

Risinger said SEC is using the lessons learned from this experience in the reorganization of the Office of Compliance Inspections.

The Veterans Affairs Department is finding similar success among three pilots.

Scott Gould, VA's deputy secretary, said one of those cases studies featured the appeals management center, which was not performing well.