OPM Needs to Modernize GS System

The Government Accountability Office said in a new report that the Office of Personnel Management needs to work on ways to modernize the General Schedule system.

This recurring theme is one that seems to be coming up more and more lately. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform recently held a hearing to debate overhauling the GS system, and articles on FedSmith have been pondering the question of replacing the GS system for some time now. See for example Should We Replace the General Schedule? and Pay Fairness Should Be a Priority.

According to the GAO report, OPM Needs to Improve the Design, Management, and Oversight of the Federal Classification System, the attributes of a modern and effective classification system include the following:

  • Internal equity: All employees with comparable qualifications and responsibilities for their respective occupations are assigned the same grade level.
  • External equity: All employees with comparable qualifications and responsibilities are assigned grade levels and corresponding pay ranges comparable to the non-federal sector.
  • Transparency: A comprehensible and predictable system that employees, management, and taxpayers can understand.
  • Flexibility: The ease and ability to modify the system to meet agency-specific needs and mission requirements, including modifying rates of pay for certain occupations to attract a qualified workforce, within the framework of a uniform government-wide system.
  • Adaptability: The ease and ability to conduct a periodic, fundamental review of the entire classification system that enables the system to evolve as the workforce and workplace changes.
  • Simplicity: A system that enables interagency mobility and comparisons, with a rational number of occupations and clear career ladders with meaningful differences in skills and performance, as well as a system that can be cost-effectively maintained and managed.
  • Rank-in-position: A classification of positions based on mission needs and then hiring individuals with those qualifications.
  • Rank-in person: A classification of employees based on their unique skills and abilities.

But then GAO went on to add this:

While the GS system’s standardized set of 420 occupations, grouped in 23 occupational familes, and statutorily-defined 15 grade level system incorporates several key attributes, it falls short in implementation. For example, the occupational standard for an information technology specialist clearly describes the routine duties, tasks, and experience required for the position. This kind of information is published for the 420 occupations, so all agencies are using the same, consistent standards when classifying positions—embodying the attributes of transparency and internal equity. However, in implementation, having numerous, narrowly-defined occupational standards inhibits the system’s ability to optimize these attributes. Specifically, classifying occupations and developing position descriptions in the GS system requires officials to maintain an understanding of the individual position and the nuances between similar occupations. Without this understanding, the transparency and internal equity of the system may be inhibited, as agency officials may not be classifying positions consistently, comparable employees may not be treated equitably, and the system may seem unpredictable.

Ultimately, GAO recommended that the OPM director do 3 things:

  1. Work with stakeholders to examine ways to modernize the classification system
  2. Develop a strategy to track and prioritize occupations for review and updates
  3. Develop cost-effective methods to ensure agencies are classifying correctly

According to the report, OPM “partially concurred” with items 1 and 3 but disagreed with number 2, saying it already prioritizes and tracks occupations for updates despite the GAO report noting otherwise.

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

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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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