New Plan of Attack for Staffing the Armed Forces

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Last year, Robert J. Conner became the first civilian director of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center at Tinker Air Force Base. It's a job usually held by a two-star general, not by a civil service executive.

Conner's appointment is a sign that Pentagon officials are starting to look for ways to free up more military personnel for war-fighting, pay more attention to grooming civilian leaders and shake up pay and promotion systems.

Yesterday, speaking at a session of the 2006 Excellence in Government Conference, Conner said that career employees need to seek assignments permitting them to build credibility as civilian leaders in the armed forces.

"The challenge for civilians is to think differently about their opportunities," he said.

President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have championed "transformation" as a way to field a more agile military that can take on new threats, such as terrorism, and to shake up resistance to change in military and civil service circles.

One potentially big change involves shifting members of the armed forces out of their desk jobs and back into war-fighting roles on the premise that civilians and contractors would be more appropriate to perform many program-support jobs.

In fiscal 2004 and 2005, more than 20,600 military positions were switched to the civil service and private sector, a Pentagon spokeswoman said. The conversions should exceed 31,000 by the end of fiscal 2007.

Some Defense agencies have set their own goals that, together with the number of conversions completed and planned, could raise the number to more than 61,000, the spokeswoman said.

The reshaping of the Defense workforce will play out over several years. The department has launched a new round of base closings and consolidations, plans to revamp active duty and reserve forces, and awaits completion of the new National Security Personnel System. The system will give the department more control over how it manages the civil service, including employee work assignments, according to officials.

But the defense transformation effort has received mixed reviews from experts, and the overhaul of workplace rules has been resisted in court by a coalition of defense unions, including the American Federation of Government Employees.

At the Oklahoma air base, Conner, who was named the logistics center's executive director about a year ago, is in charge of about 13,000 civilians -- including 1,200 scientists and engineers, and 400 software engineers -- and a $10 billion budget.

Teamwork, a willingness to reach out to others, communication and clear understanding of the Air Force's corporate goals are keys to success, he said. Going forward, he said, the Air Force will need more employees who are generalists, rather than specialists, and have worked in various programs and jobs that help them understand how organizations as a whole can improve their productivity and operations.

Joining Conner at yesterday's session were Patricia C. Adams , the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for civilian human resources; David L. Feder , a senior consultant at FPMI Solutions Inc. and longtime federal labor expert; and Brian J. DeWyngaert , chief of staff at the AFGE.

Adams said the Navy is striving to improve leadership development and training as it transitions from an organization designed for the Cold War era to a more adaptive force facing potential threats and issues that have not been fully defined.

Agencies today, she suggested, must have leaders who can learn on the fly and quickly grasp complex situations, but who also must cope with layers of rules for managing personnel, conducting labor relations and purchasing weapons and supplies.

"Government has over-regulated itself," Adams said. Still, she added, "Our people get a lot done in a difficult, complicated atmosphere."

From the Senate to the OMB

Michael Bopp , staff director for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is leaving to join the Office of Management and Budget as associate director for general government programs, and he will oversee policy issues at six agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security.

Bopp has been with Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), who chairs the Senate committee, for seven years and "will be truly missed," Collins said yesterday.

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