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Federal Diary

Defense Changes Breed Anxiety and Opposition

By Stephen Barr
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page C02

More than 27,000 comments have been filed in response to the proposed regulation that would permit the Defense Department to overhaul how it pays, promotes and disciplines civil service employees.

At least 21,000 of the comments are form letters sent in at the urging of unions, a Defense spokesman said. Unions represent more than half of the Defense workforce and, under the proposed regulation, would lose much of their bargaining power.

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Federal Diary Page

That leaves 5,000 to 6,000 comments that can be deemed original, and they reflect an array of opinions about the new personnel rules, called the National Security Personnel System. A cursory reading of the comments shows that most are skeptical or opposed to the planned changes.

To some extent, the opposition is not surprising, given the nature of the change being proposed by the Pentagon. The anxiety shows up in the rhetoric of some of the comments as employees weigh whether NSPS will turn out to be good or bad for the Defense civil service.

"From what I read about this system, it begins to read something like the old spoils system," wrote Daniel Field, an Air Force employee. "This gigantic change in the way the government has worked," he added, "will only breed the boot lickers."

But another employee said: "I am excited about the new NSPS. This change has been long overdue. . . . I hope this new system will allow agencies to recruit top private sector performers, and start them at a salary commensurate with their experience and compensation."

Other comments came from employees seemingly interested only in the details. "In section 9901.703, what is the difference between indefinite suspension and suspension?" an employee asked.

With few exceptions, the comments have been filed anonymously, do not give an occupation or disclose where the respondent works.

The proposed regulation would jettison the General Schedule salary system for a performance-based system that would give managers greater discretion over pay, streamline employee appeals of discipline and sharply curtail the role of unions.

The changes have been in the works for two years. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress that current rules have hindered the department's ability to recruit talented employees. He said managers often turn to private contractors or assign military personnel to perform tasks that would be better handled by civil service employees.

Comments filed by employees show that one of the Pentagon's chief challenges will be how to communicate and explain the changes as it moves toward a July launch of the system's first phase. Here's a few of the concerns -- and perceptions -- expressed about the proposed regulation:

• On the details: "Flesh the beast out, then ask for public comments -- this is essentially a pig in a poke," an employee wrote. Another said: "How can a reasonable person be expected to make a determination on this document if much of the vital information on how the process will work is missing?"

• On management: "The problem is that the managers may not know how to properly evaluate performance since they work . . . in a culture that mainly rewards seniority and image," one person wrote. Another asked: "How will the managers' skills be improved under NSPS to prove that they are capable of leading, of making difficult decisions, and doing hard work that they have shirked in the past under the GS system?"

• On fairness: "Favoritism and cronyism will rapidly develop as there will be greater efforts on the part of most employees to shmooze the boss with hyperbole about themselves, and those that they support," an employee said. Another wrote: "This will breed a new bunch of YES men/women who will be afraid to let their supervisors know things that will make them angry."

• On employee rights: "NSPS, if not just a desire to do something different, appears to be an attempt to allow more autonomy within government agencies to hire and fire whom they please . . . while negatively impacting/reducing the avenues of redress for the average worker," an employee wrote. An older employee worried that seniority would no longer be a key factor in deciding who gets laid off.

Those comments and many more can be found at a Pentagon Web site (www.cpms.osd.mil/nsps). The deadline for submitting comments is Wednesday.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com

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