Pentagon's Personnel System Under Fire

By Joe Davidson
Friday, February 20, 2009

The Pentagon has been placed on the defensive over its personnel system.

Two key members of the House Armed Services Committee, its chairman and the readiness subcommittee leader, have urged Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to stop moving civilian employees into the department's controversial National Security Personnel System.

In a Feb. 13 letter, Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.) told Gates the personnel system has resulted in "widespread distrust and discontent within the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of dedicated DOD employees."

The NSPS has long had a bull's-eye on it back. Federal employee unions have been trying to kill it at least since the first run of conversions began in April 2006. President Obama showed it little love during the campaign when he said he would "strongly consider a complete repeal" or a substantial overhaul of the system.

Because an administration review of the program will take some time, "we urge you to immediately halt the conversion of any additional employees to NSPS at any level or any location until the administration and Congress can properly address the future of the Department's personnel system," the congressmen told Gates.

The Pentagon says it is evaluating their request. But halting the conversions now really wouldn't mean much since almost all of the workers who would be placed under the NSPS are already there.

"Congress has specifically excluded the blue-collar portion of the workforce from NSPS, and there are no plans to include the bargaining unit employees under NSPS," said Lt. Col. Les' Melnyk, a Defense press officer. "So we're essentially maxed out now at around 205,000, with only about 2,000 non-bargaining white-collar employees left to convert this year."

As the largest pay-for-performance system in the government, the NSPS represented the most aggressive attempt by former president Bush to kill the General Schedule -- better known as GS -- classification system. Many federal workers strongly object to the NSPS pay-for-performance model. They don't trust the employee rating system that affects pay raises. Union leaders have targeted it because they feel it would hold down wages.

"NSPS is the biggest affront to the federal workforce in modern history, and it is killing morale within the department," said Richard N. Brown, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. "The overwhelming majority of Defense workers despise NSPS. Repealing NSPS is our top legislative priority. We want it gone this year."

Despite union fears about pay under the NSPS, figures released this week by the Pentagon show NSPS workers receiving significantly higher pay raises than those in the GS system. The total average salary increase for the NSPS workers was 6.4 percent, and with a bonus the average increase jumped to 8.35 percent. The increase for Washington area workers in the GS system was just under 4.8 percent.

But union leaders don't trust the NSPS figures to give a complete picture any more than they trust the system as a whole.

"DoD has been trying very hard to make NSPS look better than the GS pay system, and these increases are part of giving that perception," said Randy Erwin, the National Federation's legislative director. "Giving big increases to the first people who go under the program is a great way to get high approval. But these kinds of pay increases are unsustainable. In the long run, Defense workers will not fare well under NSPS."

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