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Pay and Benefits Watch - Pay Primer

Pay and Benefits Watch - Pay Primer

Alyssa Rosenberg | Government Executive

September 07, 2009

In his early comments on the prospects of governmentwide pay reform, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry cited CNN commentator Lou Dobbs as someone who reinforces the impression that federal workers make as much or more than their private sector counterparts. In a May segment, Dobbs used the research of CATO Institute scholar Chris Edwards to argue that federal sector pay and benefits were outpacing private sector compensation in a recession.

But Edwards performed two sets of calculations, neither of which answers the question of whether federal workers in specific jobs are making more money than private sector employees holding those same jobs. The first compares the average overall compensation of all federal employees to the average compensation of all private sector workers, and the second compares federal employees as a group to private sector workers in broad industry categories such as securities and investments and computer systems design.

That’s not to say it’s easy to draw a more meaningful comparison. Edwards and other analysts are limited by the data collected. Shortly after the enactment of FEPCA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped conducting the National Survey of Professional Administrative, Technical and Clerical Pay — the measure that established in great detail private sector salaries by job title and region. Even some of the consultants who helped write FEPCA say absent such data, it’s difficult to make real determinations about relative public and private sector pay.

In short, there are no easy answers to questions about federal pay, ranging from how it’s calculated to its relative worth. That ambiguity might not fit well into a cable news segment, a sound bite from an administration official or a short news story. But figuring out how to explain these processes and this data will be important for administration officials who would like to reform the federal pay system.

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