GAO: Federal Pay Studies Vary Widely

According to a recent GAO report, several recent federal pay studies vary widely in their conclusions and should not be taken in isolation when trying to determine how federal pay and benefits compare with other sectors.

GAO conducted the study to try to improve the understanding of federal pay in light of recent studies released with have reached widely varying conclusions on pay.

The following are the pay studies, their authors, and their conclusions which GAO analyzed:

  • Biggs/Richwine; American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research – the authors found that the average federal worker’s total compensation package was 61% higher than a comparable private sector worker
  • Congressional Budget Office – the study concluded that the average federal worker’s total compensation package was 16% higher than a comparable private sector worker
  • Edwards; Cato Institute – the author concluded that the average federal worker’s total compensation package was 100% than a comparable private sector worker
  • Project on Government Oversight – the study concluded that the average federal worker’s total compensation package was 20% higher than a comparable private sector worker
  • Sherk; Heritage Foundation – the author concluded that the average federal worker’s total compensation package was 30-40% higher than a comparable private sector worker
  • President’s Pay Agent – the study found that the average federal worker’s pay was 24% lower than comparable non-federal workers

The aforementioned studies used the following methodologies to compare pay:

  • Human capital approach — compares pay for individuals with various personal attributes (e.g., education, experience) and other attributes (e.g., occupation, firm size)
  • Job-to-job approach – compares pay for similar jobs of various types based on job-related attributes such as occupation, does not take into account the personal attributes of the workers currently filling them
  • Trend analysis approach – —illustrates broad trends in pay over time without controlling for attributes of the workers or jobs

GAO was asked to examine the following:

  • How annual pay adjustments for the GS system are determined
  • The extent to which the pay increases and awards available to GS employees recognize individual performance, and how the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) provides oversight of pay increases and awards
  • How selected studies compare federal and private pay and total compensation and the factors that may account for the different findings

GAO compared and contrasted the differences between the studies’ approaches, methodologies, and data sources, interviewed the studies’ authors, people with expertise in compensation issues, and agency officials responsible for the data, but is not making any recommendations in its report.

The full GAO report is included below.

GAO Report: Results of Studies on Federal Pay Varied Due to Differing Methodologies

© 2016 Ian Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ian Smith.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce. Ian also has a background in web development and does the technical work for the FedSmith.com web site and its sibling sites.

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  1. WOW says:

    One thing none of these studies take into account is the government employees that are covered by unions.  Generally, professional employees are not members of unions, except in the government.  Their salaries, which are higher than the regular GS employees are included in these averages, creating a higher average than would exist without including their salaries.  I would like to see someone re-run the numbers without including the salaries of union members and I think you would find the salaries are more in line, especially if you were comparing by profession.

  2. Paul Stewartr says:

    I noticed that the studies are for the GS componet only. What about the WG,WL,WS groups. Yes I am compensated good for my work, but when I was layed off from my previous employer because of September 11th I was already making what I am making after six years and nine years doing the same work and two company changes. If I had not been layed off I believe that I would be making at least $5.00/ hr more than I am making now and the only INCREASES I will see from now until I retire will be cost of living raises which have been suspended by those who want only to pad their own already rich pockets 

    • overpaidCS says:

      WG pay is consistently more than what the private sector pays for similar skills and ability. Be thankful for the taxpayers largeness

  3. Jxsonne says:

    I would also remind those following these stories regarding perceived disparity between federal and private sector pay, that at any time any given person can apply for federal job openings when they are offered to all qualified citizens.   Let’s get some of that underpaid talent into the federal workforce.  Oh wait, there are no jobs being filled currently – only jobs being vacated.. 

  4. Land Protector says:

    I don’t know about these comparison studies, but I will not give them any credit until they do a study that compares apples to apples, and oranges to oranges.  I do know that after I returned to the federal government 13 years ago, I took a huge cut in pay and it took me 8 years to reach the salary I was making in the private sector. 

    You may ask why did I come back to the federal government?  My family needed me, it is a rural area and that was the only job available.  I now have 27 years in with the federal government and my family still needs me; I don’t expect to resign and go back to the private sector.  I am OK with that, I work and live in a beautiful place and the work is rewarding, but please don’t tell me that I make more than my counterparts in the private sector.  That is b.s. and I know better.

    • overpaidCS says:

      The reason was you took a job as a office clerk and that is what it pays. You certainly weren’t doing a comparable job in govt to your private sector job

      • Guest says:

         You are so blindly ignorant with your cracked perception, it makes the heart bleed.  I guess you base all of your opinions on your own work ethic and your own lack of experience, and possibly on your own poor understanding of others’ efforts.  Go away and get a life for yourself before criticizing those you don’t have a clue about.  I am sad for you.

      • Cathy Pearson says:

        You seem to throw all government workers into one pot.  The average government employee and their pay and benefits are like night and day compared to the elected government officials.  Do you really believe that the average government worker is so different than you or the private sector employees? 

      • duder_472 says:

        My federal job is very much like my previous employment in the same field – Information Technology(IT). I do get paid less than I can make in the private industry…about $15k-25k less. Some of that is made up for by the pension, but I can do much better for myself than with my federal pension if I had that extra $15k-25k per year. Having said that, I like the people with whom I work, and will probably stay in the federal workforce at this point…a bit too late to start over in the private workforce again.

  5. Me says:

    Fortunately federal employees are not motivated by pay and rewards and only by the intrinsic value of performing government service which is why they are worth so much  money.  Just ask any of us.

    • Grumpy says:

      Amen Bro, which is why most people that I recommend applying for a government job respond with varying degrees of horror. “Put up with all the stress”, “become one of them”, “The pay is to low”, etc. Funny, none of the reasons ever refer to love of country, service to fellow citizen, continued service in the case of ex-military etc. Aw well, guess I do it for the benefits…

    • Itsjustmeagain1 says:

      Your comment seems sarcastic, but I did make a career of
      public service.  I worked for the Army,
      spent years in the field helping ID difficult system problems and providing
      information to my HQ.  I worked in
      several Project Management offices where contracting new development and major modifications
      was fulfilling.  The troops have the best
      technology available.

      As to pay, I retired as a GS-14, salary was around $104K at that time.  After 2 years I was convinced to go back to
      work as a consultant at $100/hr.  It just
      wasn’t fulfilling  and I resigned after a
      few months.  

    • overpaidCS says:

      I would be happy if just 1 CS worked more than 20 hours a week

  6. D Byte says:

    Pay attention to the approaches used by the different studies.  Having seen compensation plan reviews thru my career, no company has used a Human Capital Approach.  GAO states this on page 27,  “OPM officials added that they are not aware of any employers that use the human capital approach to set pay for their employees.”

    That discredits Biggs/Richwine, CBO, and Sherk (and Edwards which controlled for no attributes).  The remaining two studies POGO and Pay Agent both used the Job-to-job approach, which you would see at companies like Boeing, Raytheon, ITT.  The determining factors explaining different outcomes between POGO and Pay Agent are 35 occupations studied versus 200 occupations respectively.  The Pay Agent matched locally and for level of work while POGO only nationally.   These determining factors are very telling and academically signalling that the Pay Agent did their study better than the others.

  7. RicknATL says:

    One might point out that any comparision to the private sector, should be for major employers (microsoft, ibm, etc) that employ tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. These bigger companies often have benefits that are far superior to that of federal employees. Comparing feds to a small business is unrealistic and unfair. Additionally, as most feds are college grads (or higher), this discrepancy is even greater as few companies match the percentage of college grads like the fed government does.  Of course the most equitable way to match salaries is by occupation. Scientists to scientist, engineer to engineer, etc.  But of course, the studies put forth by these right wing “think tanks” are purposely manipulated to make feds look the worse.

    • Glad2BRetired says:

      The most important thing everyone seems to be missing is that until OPM releases every bit of data per occupation per employee for comparison, it still will NOT marry up. The reason being is because the private sector does NOT have the congressional mandates imposed upon them as federal workers do i.e., systems, etc.  Therefore, no matter what “study” comes out, it will NEVER be accurate. 

    • overpaidCS says:

      Your point has some merit except that the folks working at Microsoft or IBM are accountable, seldom receive raises based on attendance, don’t have jobs for life, work more than 20 hours a week Their work environment is 180 out from the CS world

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