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Classification & Qualifications Appeal Decisions

Washington, DC

U.S. Office of Personnel Management
Classification Appeal Decision
Under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code

Sara S. Senn
Staff Assistant
GS-301-11
Rocky Mountain Research Station
Forest Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Fort Collins, Colorado
GS-301-11
Title to be determined by agency
C-0301-11-06

Robert D. Hendler
Classification and Pay Claims
Program Manager
Agency Compliance and Evaluation
Merit System Accountability and Compliance

02/03/2015


Date

As provided in section 511.612 of title 5, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), this decision constitutes a certificate that is mandatory and binding on all administrative, certifying, payroll, disbursing, and accounting officials of the Government.  The agency is responsible for reviewing its classification decisions for identical, similar, or related positions to ensure consistency with this decision.  There is no right of further appeal.  This decision is subject to discretionary review only under conditions and time limits specified in the Introduction to the Position Classification Standards (Introduction), appendix 4, section G (address provided in appendix 4, section H).

As discussed in this decision, the appellant’s position description (PD) of record must be revised to meet the PD standard of adequacy in the Introduction.  The revised PD must be submitted to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management office that adjudicated this appeal within 30 calendar days of the date of this decision.

Introduction

On August 6, 2014, OPM’s Dallas Agency Compliance and Evaluation accepted a classification appeal from Ms. Sara S. Senn.  The appellant’s position is currently classified as Staff Assistant, GS-301-11, but she believes it should be classified at the GS-12 grade level.  The position is assigned to the Rocky Mountain Research Station (Station), Forest Service (FS), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in Fort Collins, Colorado.  We received the complete agency’s administrative report on September 15, 2014.  We have accepted and decided this appeal under section 5112 of title 5, United States Code (U.S.C.).

Background and general issues

The appellant requested a desk audit of her position from the FS’s Research and Development Human Resources Management which, on March 7, 2014, determined the position was appropriately classified as GS-301-11.  The appellant subsequently filed a classification appeal with OPM.

The appellant requests changes to her PD.  However, the accuracy of an official PD cannot be appealed to OPM.  See 5 CFR 511.607.  The agency revised the appellant’s official PD as part of the March 2014 desk audit process.  The appellant and her first-level supervisor agree the revised PD accurately describes the major duties and responsibilities of the position.  They, however, disagreed with the revised PD’s description of the position’s guidelines.  The appellant said the PD should instead state that “guidelines are not always available and the Director’s Office and specifically the Staff Assistant uses considerable judgment to develop guidelines to meet the needs of the Station.”  The agency did not implement the revised PD after her supervisor objected to the agency’s declining to change the guidelines-related language.

A PD is the official record of the major duties and responsibilities assigned to a position or job by an official with the authority to assign work.  A position is the work made up of the duties and responsibilities performed by an employee.  Position classification appeal regulations permit OPM to investigate or audit a position and decide an appeal on the basis of the actual duties and responsibilities assigned by management and performed by the employee (5 CFR 511.607(a)(1) and 609).  An OPM appeal decision classifies a real operating position, and not simply the PD.  Therefore, this decision is based on the actual work assigned to and performed by the appellant.

The appellant raises various concerns about the fairness and objectivity of her agency’s position review.  In adjudicating this appeal, our responsibility is to make our own independent decision on the proper classification of the appellant’s position.  Because our decision sets aside all previous agency decisions, the agency’s actions and classification review process are not germane to this decision.

The appellant also believes her position is comparable to the work described in a PD for a GS-301-12 Special Assistant to a Regional Forester that she submitted with her appeal.  By law, we must classify positions solely by comparing her current duties and responsibilities to OPM position classification standards (PCS) and guidelines (5 U.S.C. 5106, 5107, and 5112).  Since comparison to PCSs is the exclusive method for classifying positions, we cannot compare the appellant’s current duties to other positions as a basis for deciding her appeal.

Like OPM, the appellant’s agency must classify positions based on comparison to OPM standards and guidelines.  However, the agency also has primary responsibility for ensuring its positions are classified consistently with OPM appeal decisions.  If the appellant considers her position so similar to others that they all warrant the same classification, she may pursue the matter by writing to her agency’s human resources headquarters.  In doing so, she should specify the precise organizational location, classification, duties, and responsibilities of the positions in question.  If the positions are found to be basically the same as the appellant’s position, the agency must correct the classification of the positions to be consistent with the appeal decision.  Otherwise, the agency should explain to the appellant the differences between her position and the others.

Position information

The Station is responsible for directing, developing, and delivering a scientific program of fundamental and applied research aimed at improving the management, protection, and utilization of the forest, rangeland, wildlife, fisheries, recreation, and water resources.  The Station’s workforce of approximately 400 scientists, engineers, technicians, and other occupations are assigned to the Station and 12 permanent laboratories across 12 states in its geographic area of the Great Plains, Central Rocky Mountains, and the Southwest.  In addition, the Station administers and conducts research at experimental forests, ranges and watersheds, and other research natural areas.

The appellant’s position serves as the Staff Assistant for the Station Director (SD), her first-level supervisor who occupies an ES-460 Research Forester position and reports to the Chief of the FS in the Washington Office (WO).  As the organization’s principal representative on FS policy and program matters, the SD is responsible for carrying out national policies, directives, standards, and goals for application by internal and external stakeholders within the Station’s geographic area.  The appellant’s position contributes to office continuity, internal direction of the office, and various special project assignments.  She assists the SD by analyzing, developing, and implementing effective communication management between the Director’s Office and its internal and external contacts.  Her role of ensuring continuity of operations is crucial as the SD position requires working outside of the office an estimated 80 percent of the time.

The appellant’s official PD indicates she spends 33 percent of the time on liaison activities; 27 percent on problem identification and resolution; 20 percent on board, committee, symposia, and/or conference management and special project planning or accomplishment; and 20 percent on office activities coordination and mail, correspondence, and document processing.  The appellant, however, states she spends 50 percent of her time on communications management and 50 percent on administrative operations work.

The appellant’s communications management work entails controlling communication to and from the Director’s Office.  She ensures incoming and outgoing communication is handled in an appropriate, timely, and efficient manner.  For example, she controls all electronic mail to the SD, responding when possible (e.g., by scheduling appointments and meetings on his behalf), routing to the appropriate program official or other staff, or forwarding to the SD for his attention.  In addition, the appellant establishes the process for all WO-directed correspondence which requires the SD’s approval and signature.  She reviews all correspondence, making necessary changes to conform to or improve on the format, tone, and readability of the draft; determining the appropriateness of information included; identifying and flagging controversial or adversarial tone or information; and rejecting and returning correspondence requiring substantial changes to the originator.  As the face of the Station, the SD meets with Congressional staff, university officials, State foresters, and other key partners.  The appellant coordinates with partners by responding to individuals requesting a meeting with the SD, identifying and ensuring appropriate staff members are committed to the meetings based on the agenda (for example, fire-related meetings include that subject-matter science program official), and identifying and preparing briefing materials required by the SD in anticipation of responding to external stakeholders during the meeting.

The appellant’s administrative operations work includes the special projects, assignments, and taskforces for which she serves as leader or participant.  Examples include but are not limited to:

Meetings Management and Foreign Travel Program Manager.  The FS provides national direction and guidance on the planning and approval of conferences, meetings, and training events by describing roles and responsibilities, reporting requirements, checklists, and other general information.  Within those parameters, the appellant drafts standard operating procedures (SOP) to establish Station-specific authority levels and cost information, roles and responsibilities, and approval steps.  The SOPs clarify the FS’s guidance and definitions; for example, the SOP defines what the Station considers a mission (operational) related travel event.  As point of contact, the appellant ensures requests follow the required approval, reporting, and tracking process established for that event type.

The Station completes an average of 100 international trips annually.  The appellant reviews all documentation associated with individual foreign travel requests, making recommendations for approval or disapproval to the SD.  When necessary, her review entails ensuring requests include the USDA-level ethics review for invitational, non-Governmental travel or coordinating with the program office to determine adequacy and appropriate use of monies for appropriated fund travel.

Research Grade Evaluation Guide (RGEG) Taskforce.  The Station determined the staff scientists could improve the outcome of grade-level decisions made by the RGEG panel by enhancing the quality of case write-ups, position descriptions, and other required documentation.  With that outcome in mind, the appellant leads a taskforce of program manager and human resources staff to identify barriers to and make recommendations for panel process improvement.  The SD approved the taskforce’s recommendations to develop an internal website featuring topics on writing successful grant or research proposals, drafting position descriptions, and other topics geared towards the scientist staff.

Administrative Website.  The SD approved the appellant’s recommendation to update the internal website for administrative-related matters.  She collaborates with information technology staff to redesign layout, update and remove content, and post SOPs relating to handling and routing correspondence, records management, and other administrative matters.

Other Tasks.  The appellant drafts performance plans assigned to the approximately 13 positions reporting directly to the SD, promoting accountability by ensuring the plans’ content flows directly from the SD’s annual performance plan.  She also tracks the Station’s accomplishments in research, cultural transformation, civil rights, and publications to draft the annual achievements for the WO’s consideration at the end of the year.  The appellant also coordinates with the SD when the leadership team identifies positions to be unfunded to, e.g., place the incumbent of the position elsewhere, identify the civil rights impact, and prepare the reorganization package.

In addition, the appellant serves as a non-voting member of the Station’s leadership team which includes the SD, three assistant directors, the civil rights director, and an estimated seven science program managers.  She collaborates and negotiates with members to develop the agenda topics, tracks action items from meetings, and prepares materials for discussion.  For example, results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey served as a meeting topic; in preparation, the appellant analyzed the Station’s results and identified areas of concern.  Although the team collectively brainstormed ideas for improvement, she is responsible for implementing actions, identifying action item leaders, and ensuring progress on each item.  The appellant also drafts talking points for the SD to communicate at Station-wide meetings.

The appellant asserts her official PD, number 90393410, does not accurately describe the duties and responsibilities assigned to her position, stating:

The duty categories and percentage assignments are no longer valid.  While many of these duties are still performed, they are performed at a higher level of independence and expertise, additional duties have been added such as oversight of [Station] meetings management and foreign travel, and duties such as correspondence tracking now fall to another staff to handle.

The appellant states further evidence of the overall inaccuracy of her official PD can be found in its reference to a Laboratory Director, instead of the SD, as the position’s immediate supervisor and in the various imprecise or erroneous language used throughout to describe the duties of her position.

After careful consideration, we found the duties and responsibilities identified by the appellant’s official PD problematic.  For example, the PD divides the position’s work into the following categories:  (1) liaison activities; (2) problem identification and resolution; (3) board, committee, symposia, and/or conference management and special project planning or accomplishment; and (4) office activities coordination and mail, correspondence, and document processing.  The duties and responsibilities identified by the PD provide no meaningful distinctions as the work associated with each category of work cannot be considered mutually exclusive.  For example, problem identification and resolution work may be required when performing liaison activities or liaison work may be required when performing board, committee, symposia, and/or conference management activities.

Furthermore, only duties occupying at least 25 percent of an employee’s time can affect the grade of a position (Introduction, section III.J).  Following the appellant’s official PD, we would consider her special project planning work, owing to it occupying only 20 percent of the time, a minor duty with no grade impact on the position.  However, our interviews with the appellant and SD confirm her meetings management and foreign travel program manager, RGEG taskforce, administrative website, and other special project work occupies a minimum of 25 percent of the position’s work time.  Because PDs must meet the minimum standard of adequacy as described in the Introduction and The Classifier’s Handbook, the appellant’s PD must be updated so there is a clear understanding of the duties and responsibilities representing the approved classification.  Regardless, an OPM decision classifies a real operating position and not simply a PD.  We have decided this appeal based on an assessment of the actual work assigned to and performed by the appellant.

To help decide this appeal, we conducted a telephone audit with the appellant on November 26, 2014, and a telephone interview with the SD on December 15, 2014.  In reaching our classification decision, we carefully considered all of the information gained from these interviews, as well as the written information furnished by the appellant and her agency.

Series, title, and standard determination

The agency assigned the appellant’s position to the GS-301 Miscellaneous Administration and Program Series and applied the grading criteria in the Administrative Analysis Grade Evaluation Guide (AAGEG).  The appellant does not disagree and, after careful review of the record, we concur.

In addition, the appellant performs work properly evaluated by application of grading criteria in the GS-318 Secretary Series.  The GS-318 PCS covers positions that exist for the purpose of increasing the effectiveness of others by performing as many office support duties as possible.  GS-318 work, like that performed by the appellant, includes carrying out telephone and receptionist services; reserving rooms for meetings; receiving and controlling incoming correspondence; reviewing outgoing correspondence, reports, etc., for format, grammar, and punctuation, and removing typographical errors; locating and assembling information for various reports, briefings, conferences, etc.; and following up with staff members to ensure various commitments made at conferences and meetings are met.  We applied the grading criteria in the GS-318 PCS to the appellant’s applicable work and determined those duties and responsibilities are graded lower than her AAGEG-covered work.  Since her GS-318 covered duties are not grade controlling, we will not discuss them further.

The GS-301 does not have published titles, and the agency may assign a title following the guidance in the Introduction.

Grade determination

The AAGEG is written in the Factor Evaluation System (FES) format, under which factor levels and accompanying point values are assigned for each of the nine factors.  The total is converted to a grade level by use of the grade conversion table provided in the PCS.  Under the FES, each factor-level description demonstrates the minimum characteristics needed to receive credit for the described level.  If a position fails to meet the criteria in a factor-level description in any significant aspect, it must be credited at a lower level unless an equally important aspect that meets a higher level balances the deficiency.  Conversely, the position may exceed those criteria in some aspects and still not be credited at a higher level.

The appellant only disagrees with the agency’s evaluation of Factor 3.  We have reviewed the agency’s crediting of Levels 1-7, 2-4, 4-4, 5-4, 3-c, 8-1, and 9-1; concur, and have credited the position accordingly.  Therefore, our evaluation will focus on Factor 3.

Factor 3, Guidelines

This factor covers the nature of guidelines and the judgment needed to apply them.

At Level 3-3, guidelines consist of standard reference material, texts, and manuals covering the application of analytical methods and techniques (statistical, descriptive, or evaluative) and instructions and manuals covering the subjects involved (e.g., organizations, equipment, procedures, policies, and regulations).  Analytical methods contained in the guidelines are not always directly applicable to specific work assignments.  However, precedent studies of similar subjects are available for reference.  The employee uses judgment in choosing, interpreting, or adapting available guidelines to specific issues or subjects studied.  The employee analyzes the subject and the current guidelines which cover it (e.g., workflow, delegations of authority, or regulatory compliance) and makes recommendations for changes.  Included at this level are work assignments in which the subject studied is covered by a wide variety of administrative regulations and procedural guidelines.  In such circumstances the employee must use judgment in researching regulations, and in determining the relationship between guidelines and organizational efficiency, program effectiveness, or employee productivity.

At Level 3-4, guidelines consist of general administrative policies and management and organizational theories which require considerable adaptation and/or interpretation for application to issues and problems studied.  At this level, administrative policies and precedent studies provide a basic outline of the results desired, but do not go into detail as to the methods used to accomplish the project.  Administrative guidelines usually cover program goals and objectives of the employing organization, such as agency controls on size of workforce, productivity targets, and similar objectives.  Within the context of broad regulatory guidelines, the employee may refine or develop more specific guidelines such as implementing regulations or methods for the measurement and improvement of effectiveness and productivity in the administration of operating programs.

The guidelines used by the appellant meet Level 3-3.  As at this level, she uses guidelines in the form of USDA and FS policies and implementing directives, manuals, and handbooks which cover many aspects of her work.  Based on the multitude of guidelines available, she interprets, adapts, and applies existing guidelines.  Similar to Level 3-3, the appellant is responsible for developing local instructions and procedures to supplement agency guidelines.  She applies FS-issued directives and guidelines relating to, for example, the meetings management program to better address the Station’s scientific and research community (e.g., by defining a “mission” activity).  All Station policies and procedures must be in line with agency policies, directives, and requirements.  Like Level 3-3, some guidelines have overlap in application or gaps in specificity when, for example, FS establishes guidance that fails to address the unique requirements of the Station’s research and scientific community.  The appellant uses judgment to choose, interpret, or adapt guidelines to specific issues studied.  As at Level 3-3, she analyzes the subject matter and guidelines covering it, such as the wide variety of administrative and procedural guidelines covering her RGEG Taskforce work, to develop and make recommendations for panel process improvement.

The appellant seeks to credit her position at Level 3-4, stating in her appeal request to OPM:

In our office, I am responsible for developing and recommending guidelines and policies to the [SD].  I do refine or develop guidelines such as implementing regulations or methods for the measurement and improvement of effectiveness and productivity in the administration of operating programs.

The appellant also references the definitions and synonyms of a dictionary to support her assertions.  For example, the agency’s desk audit findings credit her position at Level 3-3 and not the higher level, stating she “uses general administrative policies, etc., but they do not require considerable adaptation and/or interpretation.”  The appellant, however, points to language in the revised PD drafted by the agency, which states her guidelines require “significant judgment and interpretation due to lack of specific details.”  In response to the agency’s assertions that the guidelines of her position require significant but not considerable adaptation, she references the dictionary showing significant as a synonym for considerable.  As previously stated, an OPM appeal decision sets aside any previous agency decision.  Thus, we need not discuss the appellant’s disagreement with the agency’s use of certain terminology.  Further, while dictionaries contain definitions useful for general purposes, by law we must apply the definitions and other guidance provided by the AAGEG in evaluating the appellant’s position.

The guidelines regularly used by the appellant are not of the broad and general nature or lacking in specificity as to require the refinement envisioned at Level 3-4.  She uses guidelines such as the FS Manual, FS Handbook, local protocols, and various program policies and guidelines.  These and other guidelines are considerably more detailed than those found at Level 3-4, where guidelines are broadly stated, usually scarce or of limited use, and typically require development of new guidelines for application to assignments of a complex, broad, or in-depth nature.  In contrast to Level 3-4, the appellant primarily drafts Station-level SOPs on topics including but not limited to how to handle correspondence, prepare correspondence, prepare foreign travel and meeting requests, and other matters of a procedural and/or administrative support nature.  Further, the SD confirms the Station-level SOPs are prohibited from conflicting with or being more restrictive than relevant USDA- or FS-level guidelines.  The appellant ensures local SOPs are communicated and adhered to by the Station staff.  However, her assignments do not encompass the complexity, breadth, or depth that assignments at Level 3-4 entail and thus do not require the type of deviation from existing guidelines and development of new guidelines intended at Level 3-4.

The following discussion contains work examples, provided by the appellant, relevant to our determination:

The appellant’s position also does not meet Level 3-4 in that specific instructions are available in the form of existing agency policies, directives, and operating manuals.  She drafted the Station’s meetings management SOP to assist staff with the preparation and submission of requests for mission operational meetings and training hosted or sponsored by the Station costing $7,000 or more, as such events require approval by the SD.  The SOP describes the process and steps and provides for a clearer definition of mission operational meetings and other information applicable to the local research and scientist staff.  The SOP supplements the FS Desk Guide, which was created for the purpose of providing FS-wide guidance in preparing conference, mission operational meeting, and training packages for approval.  The desk guide and its associated website and materials contain tools and guidance through templates, discussion boards, and other information to assist in planning, approving, tracking, and reporting travel events.  Unlike Level 3-4 where administrative policies and precedent studies provide only a basic outline of the results desired, the desk guide provides specific guidance to be applied and implemented at the Station-level.  This and the appellant’s other work requires a good deal of judgment, but its nature is not such that it involves resolving situations where conflicting guidelines exist.  In other words, difficulty lies primarily with individual circumstances of the situation (e.g., is a travel event considered a conference, mission operational meeting, or training; is travel funded through appropriated or non-appropriated funds; or who is the appropriate approval official for the request), which is indicative of Level 3-3 rather than in actually interpreting the guidelines or determining which of several ambiguous or conflicting precedents or such instructions govern in particular cases as expected at Level 3-4.

The appellant drafted the Station’s correspondence SOP, which provides instructions regarding receiving, drafting, and routing correspondence through the Director’s Office.  The SOP references the relevant parts of the FS Manual and Handbook including the correspondence handbook and records management.  The local SOP includes a description of the types of correspondence and general tips to follow.  The FS Manual and Handbook, in addition to the other guidelines the appellant uses to perform her work, define the areas to be addressed, methods to be employed, and the minimum requirements to be met.  Level 3-4 positions do not have the benefit of numerous SOPs (limited to productivity targets and objectives) with responsibility for developing implementing methods, procedures, and techniques similar to policy development work.  Thus, we conclude her position is not refining or developing more specific guidelines within the context of broad regulatory guidelines.

The appellant develops SOPs in response to Station needs.  For example, she drafted the local foreign travel guidelines essential to the work of the research and scientific staff.  Foreign travel policies issued at the USDA- and FS-level hinge on the funding source, whether travel is from an internal or external source and/or from appropriated or non-appropriated funds.  The approval process to be followed depends on determining the source of funding.  Additionally, request packages must be reviewed and approved by the USDA’s Office of Ethics under certain situations (a foreign agency is funding the scientist’s international travel).  The local SOP helps staff make distinctions with the different approval processes, in addition to describing the USDA- and FS- issued documentation required and identifying the letter of invitation or other supporting documentation to accompany packages.  This and other local SOPs are reviewed and approved by the SD.  The appellant also reviews all foreign travel authorization requests, making recommendations for approval or disapproval to the SD who is the delegated approving official for Station-level requests.  As mentioned previously, while she may develop local procedures and instructions within the parameters of agency guidelines, they may not be considered as interpretations of broad regulatory guidelines typically found at Level 3-4.

In addition, the appellant drafts briefing papers.  She drafted a paper for the SD’s review and approval prior to it being forwarded to the WO to request the FS reconsider the utilization of the Workforce Restructuring and Placement System (WRAPS) for GS-14 and GS-15 positions in unfunded positions.  WRAPS is intended to mitigate reduction in force actions; however, it has been FS’s policy to exclude non-bargaining unit GS-14 and GS-15 employees in unfunded positions from WRAPS.  The purpose of the briefing paper was to request FS revise existing policy by extending WRAPS coverage to all employees in unfunded positions regardless of grade or bargaining unit status.  The decisions she makes in the course of drafting briefing papers and other special projects require identifying, addressing, and making recommendations to resolve administrative-related and other concerns; this work, however, does not involve developing new methods or criteria in the execution of the work as expected at Level 3-4.

Level 3-3 is credited for 275 points.

Summary
Factor Level Points
1.  Knowledge Required by the Position 1-7 1250
2.  Supervisory Controls 2-4 450
3.  Guidelines 3-3 275
4.  Complexity 4-4 225
5.  Scope and Effect 5-4 225
6. & 7.  Personal Contacts and Purpose of Contacts 3-c 180
8.  Physical Demands 8-1 5
9.  Work Environment 9-1 5
Total 2,615

 

A total of 2,615 points falls within the GS-11 range (2,355 to 2,750) on the grade conversion table in the PCS.

Decision

The appellant’s position is properly classified as GS-301-11.  The title is at the agency’s discretion.

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