Time is right for a civilian employee compensation commission

Federal employees have dodged another pay-and-benefits bullet. The House passed its revised budget April 30 with provisions removed that would make federal paychecks smaller. House Republicans earlier had proposed a menu of changes to the federal employee compensation package that included increases to pension contributions and workforce size cuts through attrition. For this year, though, it appears they’re all off the table.

Francis Rose
That’s good for several reasons. One, of course, is that federal employees won’t have to deal with these cuts, at least for another year. But the better reason is that it buys employees some time for Congress to do the right thing, and solve once-and-for-all the fight over what the federal employee compensation package should look like, in a fair, reasoned way. More good news: A model already exists for how to do it. Congressional overseers need look no further than the recently-concluded Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. The commission did a lot of things right as they did their work, and it shows in the responses from the White House and House Armed Services Committee. The White House supports 10 of the 15 recommendations; HASC has included a chunk of the recommendations in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act markup. Remember this is happening just three months after the commission released its final report and recommendations. A civilian compensation commission modeled after the military version should do several important things its military counterpart did:

  • Talk to everyone. All the stakeholders were included in the military commission’s work. Members visited bases around the world, talked to the military advocacy community, veterans groups, individual men and women in uniform at all points across the spectrum of rank, and many other groups and people. Not everyone liked the recommendations, but no one I’ve heard from has said their voices weren’t heard.
  • Leave out politics. The military commission’s members were split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, but the report’s recommendations were not released until every member agreed to back them. A unanimous outcome is rare in Washington, but the compensation commission was one, and it gave the recommendations more juice when they were released.
  • Educate the audience. In the process of talking to everyone, the military compensation commission did a great job of explaining to all the stakeholders what it was doing, why it was doing it, and what the results would be. When it released the recommendations, the members explained why they all agreed with each other on them.The creators and leaders of a civilian compensation commission have a rare opportunity to lay claim to a valuable legacy of government management–if they do it right. Such a commission should tackle–and make recommendations about how to solve–some of the most contentious questions facing Congress right now (the ones that also make federal employees most nervous):  
  • Federal pay and bonuses. The scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs spotlights the struggle agencies have had in explaining their bonus programs to Congress, and to the public. Inevitably when news stories mention that this or that federal employee got a bonus, especially if he or she later turned up in a story about scandal, the question comes: “Why did they get a bonus?” A compensation commission could clear up the ambiguity with recommendations about why agencies should or shouldn’t have bonus programs, and if so, how to administer them.
  • Employee benefits, and how much employees should have to pay toward them. Uncertainty about benefits is pervasive in the federal workforce, as we learned in our In Depth special report, “The Reverse Retirement Wave.” Employees worry they’ll have to pay more for health insurance, pensions, and more. They worry those pensions will shrink if Congress changes their high-three calculation (based on the average of their last three years’ salary) to a high-five calculation. A compensation commission should recommend what the pay and benefit package should look like — ntire compensation package. Then Congress should accept or reject each of those recommendations, and agree that it will stop jerking employees around year after year.Uncertainty is the most pervasive word applied to the workforce right now. It surrounds virtually every element of workforce strategy and execution. A civilian compensation commission can succeed if it is modeled on the military version; if it begins with support from key members of Congress; if it listens to and takes input from employee groups and unions, agency leaders, private-sector compensation experts, and any other stakeholders; and if it produces reasonable, actionable recommendations that aim at building federal employees up instead of tearing them down. Such a commission could have a profound impact on the quality of the already-strong federal workforce, and could begin the process of mending the relationship between Congress and executive branch employees. Now is the time to begin.

    Francis Rose is host of Federal News Radio’s In Depth radio show, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m.

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