Revise GS Pay System? High Resistance to Change in Civil Service

Changes recently proposed to the GS pay system represent a difficult organizational change. Change is always resisted, especially when it is seen as a threat to future earnings and careers. The manufacturers of those old Victrolas no doubt also resisted change but change did occur.

The report released by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen calling for a “new civil service” argues for changes that , although it is a radical departure from the General Schedule (GS) system and deeply entrenched employment practices.  It is conceptually consistent with the recommendations in four reports issued by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).  It also is similar to the terminated pay systems in the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Intelligence Community.

The argument for a new system is not new – it starts with the conclusion that the GS system is no longer serving the needs of government.  It may well be the oldest national pay system in the world.  The world of work has changed dramatically since 1949 – although the GS system has kept agencies in a time warp.

The program model is also not new – salary banding, rewards for the best performers, and the flexibility to be more market sensitive. It is a model that is well suited to knowledge occupations.  The report also calls for changes in the Senior Executive Service (SES) that are badly needed.

The report stresses two points – the need to improve (some would add ‘significantly’) performance management practices and to invest in developing better managers.  Both are central to the success of the recommended pay system.

Nothing in the report is truly new. The salary model is a variation of the one adopted at China Lake in 1980. One of the advantages that is often unrecognized is that it significantly reduces the administrative time and resources required to classify jobs.  As an observer and consultant to government, it has been all too obvious for years that the human resources specialists needed to administer the classification system have disappeared like dinosaurs.  The recent column by Jeff Neal highlighting the degree of “grade creep” is evidence that the classification system is no longer working.  It has become the easiest route to a pay increase.

The investment in managers is badly needed.  Performance management is a management problem, not an HR problem.  Government’s failure to invest in its managers is not unique; the recession prompted many companies severely reduced the training of new managers.  It’s more than training, however.  The best model for the manager of the future is a coach in sports.  They need to be good at providing ongoing feedback and provide support for an employee’s development.

But as someone who has been responsible for managing the pay and performance systems in two large companies and a student of the research, I know it’s essential to start at the highest levels, make the process an organizational priority, and hold executives and managers accountable for managing performance.  This would be ideal time for government to adopt the practice of asking employees to assess their managers. The best need to be rewarded and those who prove to be ineffective moved back technical roles. Despite the track record, we do know how to make performance management a success.

I am certain more than a few employees are skeptical. The experience with the National Security personnel System (NSPS) was truly unfortunate. The machinations behind the closed doors of DoD that produced NSPS were never reported. What I saw and learned convinced me very early that it was going to be a failure. The mistakes were readily apparent but the DoD leadership committed to implementation as part of broader, unfortunate agenda.

The Partnership report also focuses on recruiting. Government’s brand as an employer has been badly damaged by the past few years. I have not seen the evidence but I was told that new hires are not satisfied with the work experience. Low starting salaries are only a piece of the problem.  Government has to address many very complex problems – far more complex than the typical business – and it will be important to the future of this country for agencies to transition to a work environment that is challenging, supports development, encourages innovation, and recognizes and rewards performance and is once again attractive to ‘the best and the brightest.’

I wish I could break into song at this point – or maybe crank up the Victrola to play the Elvis Presley version of ‘The Impossible Dream’.  For many the description of the ‘new civil service’ reads like the Man of La Mancha.  This is obviously not the first time there has been a call to charge the windmills.

The proposed changes represent a difficult organizational change. I am certain the authors of the report know there will be resistance.  Change is always resisted, especially when it is seen as a threat to future earnings and careers.  But the manufacturers of those old Victrolas no doubt also resisted change.

The report is an important first step.  The authors of the report know government.  They have been on the frontlines with Don Quixote.  The recommended changes are essential to the future functioning of government.  Nothing in the report is impossible.

About the Author

Howard Risher is a private consultant who focuses on pay and performance. His career extends over 40 years and includes years managing consulting practices for two national firms. He recently became the editor of the journal Compensation and Benefits Review. He has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.