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Pentagon To Retool Personnel System

Raises to Be Tied To Performance

By Christopher Lee and Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 10, 2005; Page A01

The Defense Department's new personnel rules will jettison parts of a civil service system that for decades have meant steady pay increases for civilian workers and several layers of protection against arbitrary firings or discipline, according to a Pentagon briefing for Congress yesterday.

Under the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), which Defense officials will discuss at a news briefing today, pay raises, now driven largely by longevity, instead will be tied to annual performance evaluations that take into account an employee's conduct and professional demeanor.

The new system would toss out the 15-grade General Schedule pay system and replace it with one made up of "pay bands," offering fewer, larger salary ranges tied to jobs more broadly grouped by occupation and employee skill level, according to a 12-page summary given to House and Senate staffers yesterday.

The document indicates that the Pentagon's new personnel system will be similar to, but not a carbon copy of, the new work rules announced for the Department of Homeland Security last month. The Defense plan, to be phased in over four years, will affect far more workers -- about 750,000, compared with 110,000 at DHS.

Bush administration officials have said both systems should serve as templates for government-wide changes in civil service rules, although several lawmakers have cautioned against moving too quickly.

The Pentagon says managers will be able to hire workers faster, especially in areas of critical need, through a streamlined process, although veterans will still have an edge over other applicants. The system also changes the rules for layoffs to emphasize job performance rather than seniority in determining who stays and who doesn't.

Workers rated as "outstanding" will get larger pay increases than others, and unacceptable performers will receive no raises, the summary says. A raise or promotion -- moving up in a pay band or rising to the next one -- will depend on receiving a successful performance rating from a supervisor.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said the summary lacked detail, but he did not see anything in it to assuage concerns that the new system will be worse than the old one.

"This will reinforce suspicions that the administration is trying to undermine the merit system and put politics over competence," said Van Hollen, who had a staffer at the briefing. "The question all along . . . is to make sure that you have a system that is fair, predictable and has the confidence of employees -- confidence that they are being rewarded based on merit rather than political preference or other considerations."

Congress paved the way for the new system in 2003 when it gave the Pentagon the authority to rewrite the personnel rules. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had argued that the current system was outdated, rewarded poor performers as well as strong ones and greatly limited the department's ability to fight global terrorism. Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security similar authority a year earlier, after President Bush insisted that he needed freedom from civil service rules to consolidate 22 agencies into an effective new department.

As at the DHS, the Pentagon plan would expand management rights and limit the influence of federal employee unions, according to the summary. Unions would no longer be able to negotiate work assignments, work methods or the use of new technology.

"Nothing delays management's ability to act to accomplish mission," the summary says.

The Pentagon will create an internal National Security Labor Relations Board to resolve labor-management disputes, shrinking the role of the independent Federal Labor Relations Authority, according to the summary. Defense management will "consult" with unions in lieu of bargaining on many issues.

The new process for employees appealing disciplinary actions would be faster than the current one. The Pentagon gives itself the right to modify or reverse decisions made by administrative law judges, but the summary says the department will use such powers sparingly. Employees could still seek redress before the independent Merit Systems Protection Board, but the standard for overturning punishment would be much higher.

Defense officials contend in the summary that the changes will balance employee bargaining rights with the department's need to act swiftly, and that new disciplinary procedures preserve due process rights. Union leaders, who contend that Pentagon officials routinely ignored their concerns and suggestions in a series of talks about the new plan, say otherwise.

Greg Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, said unions would be left with no meaningful role at the Pentagon and employees would be at the mercy of managers' whims.

"Union people get creamed," said Junemann, who reviewed the summary document. "Workers are going to lose rights and privileges they now have. . . . There's nothing defined. 'Pay for performance' remains only a title and nothing more."

Ron Ault, president of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department, said: "The problem they are trying to fix is bad management. This is not going to fix the problem; it is going to make it worse."

Pentagon officials have defended the development of the new system, noting that employees have provided feedback through town hall meetings, an interactive Web site and meetings between top officials and union leaders.

The earliest the new rules could take effect is 90 days after publication Monday in the Federal Register. The law requires 30 days for public comment followed by 30 days in which the department is to confer with employee unions. Congress then has 30 days to weigh in.

"NSPS has been and will continue to be a broad-based participative process," Pentagon spokeswoman Joyce K. Frank said Tuesday. "We encourage all interested parties to review and comment and help shape the future of the DOD civilian human resources system."

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