Policies governing federal employment have become increasingly decentralized in recent years as agencies have been given authority to customize their practices to meet their own mission, organizational, recruiting, retention and other needs. In most cases, agencies have wide discretion over how much, if at all, to use such personnel flexibilities.
The largest of these authorities are at the Defense Department, IRS, Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, intelligence agencies, financial regulatory agencies, NASA, and the Government Accountability Office.
Terms of these programs vary. They commonly include: open ranges of pay rates, rather than fixed steps, with an individual’s pay set within the range; positions placed in broad “career groups”; pay increases contingent on a Fully Successful (or equivalent) employee performance evaluation; pay increases that move employees through their pay ranges linked to performance assessments, rather than the passage of time; streamlined position classification; and pay ranges that cover more broadly defined levels of work than GS grades.
Common types of personnel flexibilities include variations in:
- job classification, such as creating generic job standards;
- compensation, through use of relocation, retention and recruitment payments, exemptions from limitations on premium pay, special allowances, and use of “special rate” pay;
- work scheduling, including alternative work schedules, telecommuting, part-time work and job sharing;
- career advancement, through the use of enhanced training programs, merit promotion plans and non-competitive career ladder promotions;
- appraisal systems, to align performance management programs more closely to the agency’s mission and to allow cash awards, quality step increases and time off awards based on performance; and
- training and educational programs, including training leading to academic degrees.
In general, though, these agencies remain under rules including worker protections from unfair practices such as discrimination and political coercion. Civil rights law, veterans preference, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Social Security Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act also continue to apply. These authorities also typically do not affect:
- insurance, leave or retirement benefits;
- requirements to adhere to merit system principles;
- prohibited personnel practices;
- rules on leave and attendance, and travel and subsistence expenses;
- rules governing training; or
- whistleblower protection.
Variations even within agencies according to location, grade, occupational series and other factors are common. Check with your personnel office to determine whether any of these flexibilities might apply to you. There are additional personnel flexibilities in specified locations and/or occupations under the demonstration project authority.
There is a cross-cutting alternative compensation policy in the intelligence community called the National Intelligence Civilian Compensation Program. This program has three career groups—technician/administrative support, professional, and managerial/supervisory—and a payband structure replacing general schedule grades. It involves a five-level rating system that emphasizes behaviors such as collaboration, critical thinking, integrity and accountability, along with skills such as communication and technical expertise.
Employees rated as unacceptable or minimally successful performers get no raises but those rated as fully successful and above get the same raise as GS employees and are eligible for performance-related raises or bonuses. Each intelligence agency can alter the system somewhat to fit its own needs. A similar but separate system for intelligence senior executives emphasizes leadership, collaboration, understanding of how different intelligence components fit together, and management skills.
In addition, within the DoD intelligence community there is a common system called the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System, involving certain DoD subagencies and the intelligence arms of the military services. DCIPS involves pay banding, use of a limited number of work categories with different levels within each, and heightened performance monitoring. Further, a pay for performance element is used at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, whose system served otherwise as the model for DCIPS.
Also, the Defense Department has adopted as part of a broader personnel reform effort called New Beginnings an alternative rating and rewards system called the Defense Performance Management and Appraisal System covering the large majority of the department’s civilian employees. It features three levels of rating—level 5 (outstanding), level 3 (fully successful), and level 1 (unacceptable). Other features are: a rating cycle of April 1 through March 31 for all employees; direct involvement of employees in crafting performance standards, which have to clearly document how performance will be measured according to specific, measureable, achievable, relevant and timely criteria; at least three performance review discussions between the supervisor and employee within each cycle; early warnings if a supervisor believes performance is falling below the fully successful level; steps to take to attempt to improve performance before taking disciplinary action; and the right of employees to write self-assessments that a supervisor would have to consider in setting a rating.
Certain categories are excluded, mainly because they fall under separate appraisal systems. These include employees in the DoD acquisition workforce demonstration project and of the science and technology laboratory demonstration project; senior executive, senior scientific/professional and senior level employees; those hired under certain special hiring authorities; temporary employees, and non-appropriated fund employees.