January 8, 2004

The End Is Near

By Shawn Zeller

The decision has been made, but we all have to wait a little bit longer to find out the details. In a Tuesday interview with Government Executive, Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James said that she and Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge have come to an agreement on the shape of the new personnel system for DHS.

"Secretary Ridge and I have agreed on a set of regulations, which are now pending," she said. After the regulations emerge from a "clearance process," James added, they will be published in the Federal Register for public comment before being finalized. She declined to say when the preliminary regulations would be announced.

James said she was pleased with the nine-month process during which a design team made up of union leaders, DHS managers and OPM staffers prepared options for Ridge and James to consider. The process, she said, "is an absolute model for what it looks like when it can be done well. Is everyone going to be happy with the outcome? Hardly. Has it been an open and transparent process? Yes, it has."

James said the process of designing new personnel rules has not yet begun at the Defense Department, which received broad authority last fall to craft new personnel rules. But civil servants can expect more personnel reforms in 2004, according to James. The DHS and Defense Department reforms, she said, "are changes that of course we would like to see governmentwide."

State and OPM negotiate differences over SES reform

A resolution may be in the offing for senior foreign service officers disgruntled over legislation passed late last year to reform the pay system for members of the Senior Executive Service.

Ken Nakamura, congressional affairs director for the American Foreign Service Association, which represents government foreign service officers, said that the State Department is negotiating with the Office of Personnel Management to resolve the dispute.

Under the fiscal 2004 Defense Authorization Act, the pay cap for SES members would increase to $154,700, relieving compression at the top pay rate that had resulted in about 70 percent of all SES members receiving the same pay. The new pay system eliminates the six current SES pay levels and replaces them with one pay range with a floor of about $102,000.

But the reforms also eliminate locality pay, and put more of each SES member's annual pay raise at risk. Instead of automatic locality pay increases, annual pay raises will be based solely on performance evaluations under the new system.

By law, pay for members of the Senior Foreign Service, the top echelon of the government's diplomatic corps, is linked to that of the SES.

In a Dec. 17, 2003 letter to Government Executive, John W. Limbert, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the reforms would adversely affect Senior Foreign Service officers overseas. AFSA represents Foreign Service members in the State, Agriculture and Commerce departments as well as at the Agency for International Development.

The new law freezes senior executives' pay at current levels on Jan. 11, 2004. Limbert said that will cause permanent pay disparities between Senior Foreign Service members currently based in Washington and those overseas. Members of the Foreign Service overseas do not receive locality pay, and instead receive "base pay," which is currently 13 percent less than what they would receive if they were stationed in Washington.

"Professionals overseas at the time of the transition will find their salaries frozen at levels up to $16,000 less than their Washington-based colleagues," Limbert wrote. "Overseas, the unfortunate message to the Foreign Service of the United States from the recent SES pay changes is inescapable: the administration and the Congress value neither our service nor our sacrifice."

Still, the State Department is advocating for foreign service officers, Nakamura said. "I don't know how well it's going," he added, "But the fact that the department is trying to help us out is encouraging."

In addition, Nakamura said he has begun talking to sympathetic congressional offices about seeking a legislative fix in 2004 if negotiations between State and OPM break down.