Rethinking Position Classification

One aspect of the civil service that is ripe for reform is the position classification process. People outside government struggle to understand the meaning of the hundreds of job series that are included in vacancy announcements. They do not know the difference between a program analyst, a management analyst, a business analyst, a management/program analyst, or any of the other types of “analysts” they see advertised, or the countless other job identifiers. With the general schedule and other pay plans such as the wage grade system for trade and craft jobs, there are about 400 job series in the federal government, along with more than 100 pay grades. The result is thousands of possible job classifications.

Years ago, when most of these classification processes were created, position classification was considered to be a serious business. Classifiers did detailed analyses of jobs, often going on-site to audit positions. Those audits included interviews with managers and employees, and observations of work being done. The intent was to make certain that federal workers got the correct pay for the work they did. Job classification also included something called “position management” that was intended to make certain jobs were structured in a way that was effective and that did not waste government resources (specifically, taxpayer dollars).

The idea behind position management is simple, but the execution is not. Here is an example. An organization has 10 jobs, all doing basket weaving. The work is 50 percent GS-11 level work and 50 percent GS-12. The agency could structure the work so all of the GS-11 work is assigned to 5 employees and all of the GS-12 work is assigned to the other 5. The result would be 5 employees at each grade level. Alternatively, the agency could assign each employee a mix of 50 percent GS-11 work and 50 percent GS-12 work. The result would be 10 GS-12 positions. If we apply the Washington pay scale, using the representative rate (Step 4) for each grade, the cost of the first option would be $804,265, while the second would cost $876,930. The easy answer is to go with option A. But what happens if it is hard to fill those jobs, and a GS-11 does not attract the right talent? What happens if there is an organization nearby that has far more GS-12 work, and they are constantly hiring away your GS-11s? What happens if trying to break out the work by grade level creates workflow problems? Those considerations go into position management decisions.

At some point in the past 20 years, the approach to position classification changed, In response to shrinking HR offices and the difficulty in finding or growing experienced classifiers, along with management frustration about the inflexibility of the process, agencies and companies developed tools to help managers and classifiers prepare and evaluate job descriptions. The goal shifted from accurate classification to quicker and easier job classification. The tools provided the option of starting with a grade level and working backward to get the words that would support that grade. That approach accelerated the demise of position classification as an HR occupation. Now it is hard to find an experienced classifier, and even harder to find agencies that treat position classification as much more than an administrative exercise. In effect, the attempts to game the system won.

The old approach to position classification had its benefits and was probably superior to today’s approach, but I certainly would not support going back to it. It was too arbitrary, unresponsive to labor market trends, and encouraged the type of gaming the system that eventually won.

If we want to start improving how we manage the civil service, addressing job classification is crucial early step. The pay plans are mostly based in law, so changing those will take an act of Congress. The job series are mostly not driven by law. OPM has the authority to radically simplify them, and should do so now. Agencies also have the authority to assign work, so they can take steps now to implement position management strategies that make reasonable trade-offs between cost and the ability to recruit and retain talent.

Agencies should make affirmative decisions regarding who has the authority to make those trade-offs, but they may not have the expertise in-house to do it. Is that trade-off made by a manager who knows very little about the state of the job market and the adequacy of compensation? Or is it an HR specialist who also knows very little about compensation and the state of the job market? The answer is neither. Agencies need compensation professionals who can make that kind of decisions, or at least provide informed guidance and options to the people who have the authority to make them. That means they need to either create those jobs or contract for them, and they need to increase the investment in training in-house compensation experts.

A radically simplified set of job series that make the job classification process far more understandable to current and potential federal employees is an initial move that can be implemented within a reasonable amount of time, but the long-term goal should be legislation that creates a market-based approach to federal pay and allows the federal government to recruit and retain the talent it needs. That would mean we do not apply an arbitrary standard to a job and decide that every basket weaver should make the same amount of money, regardless of what the labor market says a basket weaver is worth. The labor market would, over time, dictate what we pay people. That may mean that some federal jobs pay much less, while others earn far more than is possible today.

That last possibility is one that may get in the way of a true market-based approach to federal pay. People who argue feds are underpaid rarely want to see pay go down, while the other camp never wants to see pay go up. We have to accept the idea that a job paying $100K today may really be worth only $75k, and at the same time recognize that we may have another $100K job that is really worth $150K or more. We may have federal jobs that are worth $250K or more. If we want to make the argument that federal pay should be based on the labor market, we have to be willing to let it go where the market drives it. That means market forces, rather than political ideology, have to be the driver.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Position Classification

  1. In Federal HR processes there are avenues to address market differences in areas that make recruitment of specific series (area of expertise) more difficult and assist the hiring manager to better compete in the market pool. I wonder why those courses of action were not identified in this article. Also to discuss such complex issues (classification and position management) in 9 paragraphs is somewhat disingenuous to the system that is in place.


    1. You are right – there are avenues available. The problem is that they are difficult to do, tend to apply to every agency even when the problem may be exclusive to one, and they typically take far too long to get approved.


  2. Not difficult at all just require the effort. I have done them many times with positive results. These SSRs are not necessarily applied across all agencies and are designed to target wage disparities in limited situations. I understand these are your opinions within a blog but when those who don’t have HR Competencies read it and immediately their thought is “wow this guy is right the classification system is broke and we need a system based on market trends” they do not allow for many, many things when making that leap. You can’t separate position management, classification, and other HR functions from the fact that Government consumes funds and does not generate them; all agencies are mandated to perform their missions in the most cost effective manner possible; and the Government footprint should be as small as possible. When a something is consumed with no requirement to replace as in the case of federal spending it is akin to an addict, the more you give the more they want. Market trends can be unreliable with swings that are “bubble” orientated and pay that is reflective of companies that generate revenue who can increase as well decrease pay reflective of the market. That would not fly in the Civil Service sector, try reducing someone’s pay when there is a “glut” of workers in a particular field. Your comment “The goal shifted from accurate classification to quicker and easier job classification” I believe is way off base. I read up on your creds and see you have extensive experience in Federal HR and if you allowed this focus to shift away from accurate classifications in your area of responsibility then that is sad and part of the problem with the perception of classification in Fed HR today. Just my opinion, take care.


  3. Reducing the number of occupational series is tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Series’ are essential in determining experience necessary to perform the work to be done. The real need is to get away from the 15 level, one size fits all, grading system. Different kinds of organizations need different patterns for progression. Why should a Social Security claims processing office use the same grade structure as a research and development laboratory? Yes it will take Congressional action to make such fundamental changes but endlessly applying band-aids to a huge wound just doesn’t get it.


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