OPM promotes new thinking about federal pay

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

John Berry wants agencies to view the two recent memos the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget issued on federal employee pay as an opportunity, not a penalty.

Berry, director of OPM, said he understands few like the fact that performance bonuses will be limited in fiscal 2011 and 2012 and within grade increases should not be considered automatic. But he said the reminders provide the government with an opportunity during these fiscally tight times.

“The federal government is going to have to continue to tighten its belt and that is going to cause pain,” Berry said Wednesday after the monthly National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations meeting in Washington. “We are trying to do that in a responsible, professional manner. This is belt tightening, not eliminating. And it’s respective of a process. We are not eliminating bonuses. We are not eliminating within grades. We are making very clear these are tools that ought not be taken for granted.”

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And, Berry said, by reducing the amount of money agencies are spending, it will cause managers to think about these programs in new ways.

“Are we getting the maximum leverage out of our recognition programs? Are we advancing the right people?” Berry said. “That ought not be by rote.”

Berry said the administration was not trying to get ahead of Congress, but managing well within declining resources.

“We are responding to that I think very carefully with a studied approach, that I believe sends clear guidance to both managers and our employees, and I think shows both the Congress and the American public that we are serious about doing a good job,” he said. “We get these are tough economic times. We get that it’s up to all of us to do a better job in those times to convince people we are being as thoughtful as we can in managing their resources.”

Along with the two memos, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) earlier this week asked Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to make every effort to block a current proposal to increase the amount that federal employees contribute to their own pension fund.

Berry said the administration, and especially those involved in negotiating with Congress on raising the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, are keenly aware of Mikulski’s concerns.

“We have certainly made them aware of the facts and sensitivity of these issues,” he said. “But that being said, they have a tough job. We look forward to seeing where they go.”

Berry said the labor-management council was not consulted during the development of the performance or within-grade memos. But OMB and OPM did discuss their plans with employee unions before issuing the memos.

Despite the council’s lack of participation in these areas, Berry and other federal and union officials say the labor-management forums are having a positive effect on agencies.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provided one case study Wednesday.

After the financial industry meltdown and Bernie Madoff scandal, the agency had to ramp up its oversight and investigations offices, without any additional resources.

Greg Gilman, a National Treasury Employees Union representative at the SEC, said the union and management worked together to improve how the SEC is organized to deal with the agency’s increased oversight requirements.

Gilman said NTEU met with employees and came back to management with proposals.

“Probably the most important of which was a flattening of the management structure in enforcement,” Gilman said. “At the time, there were branch chiefs to which four attorneys and accounts would report, and a couple of those branch chiefs would report to an assistant and so on. What we proposed was eliminating that branch chief layer of management, returning those folks as senior people into the bargaining unit to do investigative work.”

He added this would address many of the concerns about autonomy and increase the number of investigators.

“We were able to make that proposal early on and that became a major part of the structure of reorganization of enforcement,” Gilman said.

Jeff Risinger, the SEC’s chief human capital officer, said it would have cost the SEC $8 million-to-$10 million to hire about 40 people to boost the investigations office.

Risinger said SEC is using the lessons learned from this experience in the reorganization of the Office of Compliance Inspections.

The Veterans Affairs Department is finding similar success among three pilots.

Scott Gould, VA’s deputy secretary, said one of those cases studies featured the appeals management center, which was not performing well.

Gould said the goal was to increase productivity without a lot of new resources.

“The number of employees increased by 40 percent at the same time production overall was two-and-a-half times greater,” he said. “This was a great example of management and labor sitting down, figuring out how to do work business processes better, more efficiently.”

While SEC and VA are examples of labor-management councils working, officials say it’s far from perfect. Gould said at VA there are some councils that are working well, and others that need a lot of help.

Berry said the Social Security Administration is struggling with getting their council off the ground.

He said SSA’s management and union can’t agree on how to address pre-decision involvement. This is where SSA managers consult with union officials on issues that affect employees early on in the process. Berry said the lack of agreement has been a major speed bump and is becoming a distraction.

“Frustrations still continue at SSA,” he said. “We have done as much hand holding as we can. The reality is we can’t force [it]. It has to be something both parties are willing to engage in a solution. Right now we don’t have that. We will continue to need to focus on that.”

Berry said his office will work SSA and other agencies to make sure they know where they stand and how they need to improve as the report to the President is coming due over the next 6-to-8 months.

“We hope there will be some informal pressure that will get them engaged,” he said. “We don’t want a bell curve here. It’s not like we have to play to the bell curve. We want everyone to succeed. We will do everything in the tool box to try to make sure everyone is doing a great job so when we are presenting to the President we have a good news story. So if they fail, it will not be for a lack of attention or trying or partnership.”

Overall, Berry said there is an important transition going on. Agencies are moving away from process and toward a substantive relationship between labor and management.

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