Is the General Schedule System Viable for the Future?

There appears to be a growing consensus in Washington that the General Schedule pay system is outdated and in need of reform. But a recent hearing on the issue highlighted the fact that there are many different opinions on how to reform the system (or even if it should be reformed at all).

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing this week to try to determine whether or not the General Schedule pay system was a viable pay system for the 21st century.

Several witnesses testified at the hearing. Among them were Office of Personnel Management director Katherine Archuleta, American Federation of Government Employees national president J. David Cox, Sr., Government Accountability Office Director of Strategic Issues Robert Goldenkoff and David J. Devine, senior scholar at The Fund for American Studies. Each offered his or her testimony on the pros and cons of the GS system.

“We recognize that the system that was established 65 years ago does need reforming,” said Archuleta. “It is possible to recognize what the General Schedule does well, such as providing consistency, internal equity, and transparency, while acknowledging that there is a need to constantly evaluate and seek improvements and updates.”

David Devine had a harsher opinion of the GS pay system, saying:

“Today, much of General Schedule government employee appraisal is ‘pass-fail’ with 90+ percent passing. Federal pay raises and locality pay are automatic, not based on performance at all. Within-grade, quality steps and awards are supposed to be based on performance but since most employees are rated at the same appraisal level the effect there is minimal too. In 2013, the most generous estimate is that only 9,513 of 2,054,175 or 0.46 percent were dismissed from the Federal Government, compared to 3.2 percent in the private sector, six times fewer firings.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said in the hearing that the generous union protections provided to much of the federal workforce is to blame for a lot of the problems with the pay system:

“If we’re going to look at civil service reform, isn’t the model, to a certain extent, the apolitical organizations (the army, navy, marines), who have merit systems for promotions, have evaluations, but ultimately can be quickly eliminated for crimes, quickly eliminated for dramatic underperformance, and in fact historically are not promoted if they are marginal players? It is amazing to me that the people who literally can get shot at for a living have the greatest risk of losing their jobs [for lack of performance] while civilians, often in the same theaters making more money, have no such risk.” author Howard Risher offered an altogether different opinion in his article Revise GS Pay System? High Resistance to Change in Civil Service. Risher said that investment in managers is what is really needed, saying, “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.”

Government Accountability Office Director of Strategic Issues Robert Goldenkoff agreed with Risher’s point when he said in the hearing, “If managers would only be managers, a lot of these problems [under the GS system] would go away.”

With so many differing opinions on the issue and so much apparent resistance to changing the current system, it is unlikely any substantial changes will be enacted to the General Schedule system anytime soon despite the sense one gets that there is a growing consensus in Washington that the system is outdated.

What is your opinion? Is the system in need of reform? If so, what changes do you think should be made? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.