2008 Plum Book

Interactive version of 2008 Plum Book now in Search for Opportunities.

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The Federal Civil Service: How Does It Work?

 

 

For those considering Federal employment to help the new Administration achieve results, it is helpful to know a little about how the Federal Civil Service System works.  Currently, more than two million people are Federal civil servants.
 
The Federal Civil Service System includes all appointed positions in the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the Federal government, except for military positions in the uniformed services.  The positions they hold can be permanent, term (more than one year but less than four years), or temporary (less than one year).  The Civil Service consists of:
 
-- Competitive Service Positions
-- Excepted Service Positions
-- Senior Executive Service (SES) Positions
 
The primary differences among these three services are in appointment procedures and in job protections.  Generally speaking, salaries for Civil Service positions increase every January, based on the President’s recommendation with approval by Congress.  Although not yet official and subject to change, the 2009 salary increase for all Federal employees is projected to be 3.9%.
 
The Competitive Service
 
For Competitive Service positions, appointment procedures, internal promotion requirements and qualification requirements are prescribed by law or by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and apply to all agencies.
 
Competitive Service includes all civilian positions in the Federal government that are subject to Title 5, United States Code; that are not specifically excepted from Civil Service laws by statute, by the President, or by OPM; and that are not in the SES.  This includes most positions in the Executive branch of government.
 
Most positions in the Competitive Service are paid in accordance with the General Schedule (GS) grades 1 through 15.  There are some exceptions as certain agencies have been given the authority to create unique pay banding or market-based pay systems to address complex mission requirements.
 
The most common method for entering the Competitive Service is to be selected for an appointment after competing in an examination with other individuals from the general public who also desire to work for the government.  If candidates are successful in getting selected for a position, they are generally given a Career Conditional Appointment.  What this means is that after performing successfully for three years, they receive career status, which gives them a greater degree of protection should there be the need for a reduction in force.
 
The Excepted Service
 
For Excepted Service positions, only basic requirements are prescribed by law or regulation, and each agency is free to develop specific requirements and procedures for its positions.  Positions excepted from the Competitive Service by OPM or by law are placed into three categories:  Schedule A, B, or C.
 
Schedule A positions are positions for which it is not practical to apply qualification standards and requirements used in the Competitive Civil Service System.  These positions are not of a confidential or policy-determining nature.  For example, this appointing authority is used to hire attorneys and also individuals with severe physical disabilities.
 
Schedule B positions are positions for which it is not practical to hold open competitive examinations.  Positions are not of a confidential or policy determining nature.  Individuals appointed to Schedule B positions must meet OPM qualification requirements for the position.  Examples of where this authority is used include the appointment of students to temporary and career intern positions while they’re still in school, or the hiring of recent college graduates for Federal Career Intern Program (FCIP) positions.
 
Schedule C positions are political appointments that are either key policy-determining positions or positions that involve a close personal relationship between the incumbent and key political officials.  Examinations are not required.  Each incoming administration determines the personal qualities and skills needed to fill these positions.
 
The Senior Executive Service
 
The SES was created by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.  Congress designed the SES to be an elite corps of managers charged with running the Federal government.  The SES is a separate personnel system, distinct from the Competitive and Excepted Services.  Currently, SES pay can be set anywhere from $114,468 to $172,000 per year.
 
Certain principles of the Competitive Service apply to SES positions; however, there are also appointed SES positions for which competitive procedures do not apply.  OPM has approval authority for which SES positions are filled through competitive procedures and which are filled through political appointments.