- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Uncle Sam, like many of us, wants to lose weight this year.
But given the new demands on the government creation of the Transportation Security Administration, setting up the Department of Homeland Security and possible war in the Persian Gulf most federal agencies will be trying to reshape: Turn fat into muscle.
The government's effort, regardless of whether it works, presents opportunities and potential troubles for lots of federal workers.
The administration has indicated that nearly half of all nonpostal federal jobs could be done better, and at less cost, by private contractors. Many feds wonder if they are part of the expendable 50 percent.
Some federal agencies, meanwhile, already are suffering what's called a "skills imbalance," meaning they have too many of the wrong kind of people and not enough new, or experienced, talent.
Beginning next month, executive branch agencies will find it easier to "reshape" without layoffs. Under guidelines created by the Homeland Security Act, the agencies are now able to offer buyouts and early retirement without going through the congressional hearing-and-approval process.
Congress has authorized the Office of Personnel Management (with big brother Office of Management and Budget looking on) to OK buyouts for agencies that are reshaping. Under the old rules, Congress granted buyouts only to agencies facing layoffs because of reorganizations or budget cuts.
Under the new guidelines, more agencies will be able to qualify to offer buyouts and early outs. The buyouts will continue to be a maximum of $25,000 (that's $16,000 to $18,000 after deductions). Early retirement (at age 50 with 20-year service, or any age with 25 years of service) still will be approved by OPM.
U.S. Postal Service buyouts
Rank-and-file postal workers continue to hear mostly from other rank-and-file postal workers that early outs, and maybe buyouts, too, are imminent.
Congressional offices, USPS headquarters and media types get queries about it all the time.
But wishing especially when the wish involves you getting a bonus to retire early isn't the way it works. The USPS is independent, up to a point. But not that independent.
For purposes of buyouts and early retirements, the USPS, like other executive branch agencies, must go by the book. That requires OPM approval for early outs, even if the USPS and its unions have agreed that downsizing will be accomplished via early retirement.
Pay for performance
PFP, or merit pay, or whatever you call it, appeals to many younger workers, and to politicians who operate under a strict seniority system.
But the concept of such performance-based pay, which has merit, is often different from the reality. That's the reason federal unions (and many longtime feds) oppose efforts to substitute the time-in-job pay system for programs by which the bosses decide who gets what.
So look for a big fight as the Bush administration pushes for a new performance-based pay system. The plan that goes to Congress shortly features a guaranteed bare-bone (2 percent next year) raise for all feds, with the chance to get much more based on performance.
The system also would raise the pay cap for career executives to $154,700 from $142,500.
Performance raises for rank-and-file feds would come from $500 million that pool agencies would divide up each year, based on their share of the $100 billion federal payroll. All workers would get the basic pay raise, and could get both performance adjustments and within-grade (length of service) raises, too.
The White House, however, may seek to end the longevity increases.
Money for those raises which go to about a third to a half of the work force each year would be a tremendous addition to the merit-pay pool. Under the longevity-pay system, 98 percent of feds get a 3 percent raise every one, two or three years, depending on their time in their GS grade. The 3 percent is in addition to any regular raise feds get in January.
Opposing merit pay is nearly as tough as implementing it. That's why nothing has happened in decades.
Presidents since John F. Kennedy have considered, or tried, ways to give more weight to ability and less to seniority. Federal unions are expected to fight the merit-pay plan on grounds that it would make it easier for bosses to play favorites.
The argument for seniorty-centered raises is that they make it tougher for bosses to reward buddies or their current romantic interests and equally tough to punish people they don't like. Or who aren't team players at work, or playmates after work.
When/if the merit-pay battle gets hot in Congress, bear in mind that members of the House and Senate, more often than not, get top jobs and chairmanships based on seniority, not merit.

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