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GAO Chief Aims to Raise The Bar on Pay Raises

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By Stephen Barr
Sunday, July 6, 2003; Page C02

Next up on Capitol Hill for a pay system overhaul: the General Accounting Office.

Comptroller General David M. Walker, the head of GAO, drew up a plan to break away from the government's traditional pay practice -- an annual raise regardless of job performance -- and more strongly link the compensation of the GAO staff members to their skills and achievements.

"We are in the knowledge business," Walker said of GAO. "We are only as good as the people we have. We have to be able to design our policies and systems, including our pay systems, to be able to attract, retain and motivate top talent. Whatever we end up doing is going to be geared to doing just that."

As part of the change, Walker also will ask Congress for permission to change the agency's name to the Government Accountability Office. He thinks the proposed name more accurately reflects GAO's work, which tilts toward program evaluation and policy analysis, while keeping one of Washington's best-known acronyms.

Walker's plan, which he has developed over several months, goes to the Hill at a time when the Defense Department is seeking significant changes in its civil service personnel and pay rules and just months before the Department of Homeland Security unveils a revamped pay and personnel system for its employees.

Although GAO is an arm of Congress, its pay system originally was modeled on the General Schedule, the white-collar pay and job classification system used by much of the executive branch. Primary features of the GS are a January pay adjustment, set by Congress after a review of Labor Department wage trends, and a "locality pay" raise, reflecting salary changes in large and medium-size cities and usually determined by the president.

Unlike most federal agencies, GAO has modified its pay system. Over the last two decades, the majority of the workforce has migrated to "pay bands," which consolidated the 15-grade General Schedule into fewer levels. The GAO staff, for the most part, also undergoes more rigorous job evaluations than many of its executive branch counterparts.

Walker, in an interview, said he has submitted draft legislation to Congress that would "decouple" GAO from the federal pay system. The House civil service subcommittee will hold a hearing on the proposal July 16.

Under Walker's plan, GAO employees who are meeting job expectations would receive their annual pay adjustment in two parts -- a general increase that would be given to all the staff, and a raise that would vary depending on job performance.

The general increase would provide inflation protection and a locality pay raise based on compensation studies conducted by GAO and tailored to the agency's workforce.

The second part of the raise would hinge on the employee's level of performance and that worker's pay band. Walker estimated that at least 95 percent of GAO's 3,200 employees will qualify for the performance-based raise.

For employees, the proposed system carries some risks. Employees who are rated as performing "below expectations" would not get an annual raise of any type. If GAO found any employees to be overcompensated or if employees were reassigned to a lower pay level as part of a reorganization, they might not get pay raises until peers moved up to their salary level.

Walker's plan initially created a stir inside GAO, but he has met with members of GAO's employee advisory council, whose 23 members are elected by co-workers, and has changed some parts of the plan in a bid to allay employee concerns. For example, Walker has agreed to a two-year transition for pay system changes as way to help ensure that persons near retirement are not adversely affected, two council members said.

The employee council, the two members said, will carefully watch the implementation of the pay changes in an attempt to make certain they roll out in a fair and consistent manner.

Although most employees have not objected to the proposed name change, some oppose any renaming, partly because of their sense of tradition. Others contend that any name change should reflect a stronger affiliation with the legislative branch.

"Change is difficult," Walker said. But, he added: "We are already in the vanguard of reform and we are dedicated to staying there. . . . We have a responsibility to be as good or better than those that we audit, evaluate and investigate."

Stephen Barr's e-mail:barrs@washpost.com.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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