A Merit Badge for the MSPB

An MSPB report explains how the GS pay system was designed as a type of pay-for-performance system.

I subscribe to Merit Systems Protection Board’s (MSPB) publication Issues of Merit. Most of you who read this article should too. It’s a great publication that comes to me via e-mail about once a quarter and is always an unanticipated and welcome surprise. Issues of Merit offers informed, non-partisan information about the internal workings of the Executive Branch.

Motivation that makes sense

The most recent Issues of Merit is of particular interest to me. The first three articles are relevant to any supervisor, manager, and/or union official – the folks for whom I’ve designed training over the years.

The initial article in this most recent publication concerns “employee engagement”. Engagement might be defined as a sense of purpose, contribution, or patriotism that motivates so many Federal employees. The article follows up on a recent MSPB report titled The Power of Federal Employee Engagement. I made mention of that beautifully researched report in an earlier article [see The Future of Pay-for-Performance in the Federal Government]. FedSmith author Robert Gilson wrote about it as well.

Experience tells me that allowing/helping employees to see how their work matters to their country may be the most important and accessible motivational tool available to Federal managers. Carrots, sticks, training, and pay are also important management tools. Supervisors, managers, and HR specialists who consider the Board’s findings regarding engagement may find a simpler and more cost-effective way to get the outcomes they want from employees. I think the article is a must-read.

A well-reasoned vote for the GS system

The very next article (I wonder if it’s coincidental) concerns pay-for-performance. It’s authored by the MSPB’s Director of Policy and Evaluation, John Crum PhD and titled Pay for Performance: Where Do We Go From Here? In a very short and well-reasoned format, Dr. Crum demonstrates how the General Schedule (GS) was always intended to be a pay-for-performance (PFP) system. Of course, it also rewards longevity, a value that is less in vogue these days.

From the positive perspective, quality step increases (QSIs) are intended to reward exceptional performers.

Management’s failure to use this tool in many agencies is more the problem than the design of the General Schedule. In the pre-PFP days I spent with the Department of the Navy, very few folks were nominated for step increase rewards. Beyond the QSI, 5 CFR Chapter 451 provides for other awards/bonuses that may, if used, prove more comprehensive and effective at using pay to motivate employees than recent attempts at PFP.

On the darker side, incompetent employees are, by design, to be denied pay advancement (within-grade increases) and/or removed from their positions in the GS scheme. That’s no different than most pay-banding constructs. Our problem in government (which seems to persist under PFP) is that management is reluctant to identify those who are proving the Peter Principle [see When Acceptable People Perform Unacceptably]. Of course, many of the government’s unacceptable performers are managers themselves.

I urge all FedSmith readers interested in the subject of pay-for-performance to read Dr. Crum’s article. Perhaps it’s time to insist that Federal managers make better use of the carrots and sticks that are integral to the success of the GS system. Doing so might be preferable to the labor-management conflicts and employee dissatisfactions that have surrounded PFP in recent years.

Options for grown-up discipline

The very next article in this most recent newsletter is titled Alternative Discipline: What You Need to Know. As outlined in an article I authored a few years back [see Our Discipline System Needs Corrective Action] our system of “formal discipline” is flawed and outdated. The Board does a good job of succinctly leading readers to a longer report that was written on the same subject.

This is an area in tremendous need of reform. Human Capital Officers and think tanks seem to be devoting disproportionate amounts of time and energy in the direction of replacing the General Schedule. Revamping the government’s decrepit system for addressing misconduct may be a more efficient and practical direction.

Suspensions are disciplinary relics. Reprimands that are expunged after a year or two are counter-intuitive. The Board is steering the Federal community toward a 21st century disciplinary system that seeks to involve the offending employee in efforts to change her/his behavior. For those of us who mediate, this is more realistic than radical. Thus the initial article concerning the concepts of employee engagement is brought all the way ‘round to the practical world of discipline. Bravo!

About the Author

Robbie Kunreuther is the Director of Government Personnel Services (GPS). GPS provides 1 to 3-day seminars to Federal agencies in four subject areas: Dealing with performance and conduct issues; Developing sensible performance appraisal criteria; Fostering cooperative labor-management relations; and Applying mediation skills in the workplace. Over the years, Robbie has trained thousands of Federal supervisors, managers, HR specialists, and union officials. For more information about him and GPS, go to trainingfeds.com.