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GAO Urges Pentagon to Tackle Rank and File's Misgivings About New Pay System

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, August 3, 2005

T rust and communication are two keys to pulling off large-scale change, and a report recently provided to Congress suggests that the Pentagon may need to put more muscle into addressing the concerns of employees and unions as it prepares to launch a new pay system for more than 700,000 Defense civil service workers.

The report, from the Government Accountability Office, said the Pentagon needs to create a comprehensive communications strategy and reach out to employees and others this year when it begins to implement the National Security Personnel System. One of the NSPS's key changes, Defense unions contend, is designed to weaken collective bargaining rights.

The GAO reviewed a Pentagon document on plans to inform employees and others of the NSPS and concluded that its "strategy is not comprehensive" and "does not identify all key internal stakeholders and their concerns."

The document did not identify unions as key players, the GAO said, "but, instead, characterizes union leadership as 'NSPS' biggest detractor.' "

In addition, the GAO said, the Pentagon "has not included employee representatives on the working groups that drafted the design options for the new system."

The GAO report did not go unnoticed by the United DOD Workers Coalition, a union group that opposes the NSPS and is urging Congress to revisit the broad authority it granted the Pentagon to overhaul its civil service rules.

In a news release, John Gage , president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said, "The GAO report clearly supports our concerns that the design process did not involve active collaboration and the coalition was not consulted in a way that addressed the concerns of the workers that we represent."

Gregory J. Junemann , president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said, "The GAO report reconfirms what we have been saying all along: that the DOD and OPM [Office of Personnel Management] have left workers out in the cold when it comes to the creation of NSPS."

Ten unions that represent Defense employees have filed a lawsuit alleging that Defense has failed to include them in the development of the NSPS labor-management relations program.

Pentagon officials have said their plans call for reducing the number of issues that can be put on the bargaining table and for creating an internal board to resolve disputes with unions. Defense has said that the changes are necessary to help it deploy staff and technology more quickly in the global war on terror.

In a letter accompanying the GAO report, the Pentagon said that it disagreed with several of the GAO's findings and that NSPS officials "recognize the importance of reaching out to and engaging all stakeholders, both internal and external."

Defense officials have convened more than 100 employee focus groups, held more than 50 "town hall" meetings, created a Web site, prepared informational brochures and sponsored a conference in Tampa for more than 500 senior leaders, lawyers and others, the letter said.

An NSPS spokeswoman said that some key points made by the GAO were based on a "draft," or tentative, communications strategy that had been prepared by Defense contractors but was not adopted by the department.

According to the Defense letter, the Pentagon opted to use tailored communications plans for each significant step in the NSPS development and shared them with unions, employees and others.

The Pentagon also asked employees to participate in a Web-based survey to collect information about job performance factors and behaviors important to their work. About 70,000 of 517,000 employees asked to participate completed the survey, the NSPS spokeswoman said.

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Please join me at noon today on Federal Diary Live at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ for a discussion of federal employee and retiree issues.

Diary in Error

The Aug. 2 column's item on an increase in the tax-free transit subsidy was wrong. The provision was dropped by House and Senate negotiators from the highway and mass transit bill approved July 29 by Congress. The negotiators decided that the issue would be more appropriate for consideration on legislation involving benefits and not highway and transit funding, a Senate aide said.

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