Yet, the proposal is also another indication of the bipartisan cast behind the growing reform effort and its continuing push for a prominent place on the federal workplace agenda.
A controversial point would develop alternatives to the General Schedule (GS), the pay and classification system that covers most federal employees. The language suggests that the old and “rigid” GS, which includes two-thirds of Defense Department (DOD) staff members, is not worth saving.
Although the 13 points in the proposal, called “Force of the Future,” apply only to DOD, it has clear implications for the rest of government. The plan would fundamentally change the relationship Uncle Sam has with his staff. He would do this by giving his managers power to more quickly recruit, advance and terminate staff members and use pay as a reward for performance.
One carrot for employees would be the creation of paid parental leave, 18 weeks per birth for birth mothers and 12 weeks for partners and spouses and adoptive and foster parents.
Although it does not specify details for a new personnel system, the proposal says “its goal is to provide the Secretary of Defense with the authority and flexibilities he currently lacks to directly make decisions.”
What it lacks in details in certainly provides in direction and rationale that Obama administration officials could use as a template for other agencies.
“If the changes in DOD proved to be successful, they could ultimately serve as a model for reform in the rest of government,” said John Palguta, a vice president with the Partnerships for Public Service, “but it will be a number of years before the verdict is in.”
Significantly, the first of the 13 points would empower the secretary over employees by moving those not covered by union contracts, about 30 percent of the staff members, from one legal umbrella, Title 5’s “competitive service,” to another, Title 10’s “excepted service.” In real terms, this could mean more limited use of veterans’ preference, doubling the probationary period to two years, a “market-sensitive” pay system, and promotion based more on a person’s qualifications and readiness.
Federal employee unions, however, already may have been able to kill the Title 10 idea. J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the Pentagon told labor leaders it is now “off the table.” The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment.
“AFGE opposes moving federal employees to Title 10 because Title 10 makes every employee an excepted service employee, makes every employee a temporary employee, and gives far too much discretion and authority to unaccountable managers and political appointee,” Cox said. “In essence, it makes every federal employee a political appointee. The Title 5 protections that prevent a politicized federal workforce would disappear. Favoritism, cronyism, and corruption would follow as day follows night.”
Force of the Future launches a strong attack on the General Schedule, saying it “is wholly inflexible and ill-suited to attract critical skills or motivate high performers.” In the name of fairness, “the promotion system primarily rewards time in grade,” the document adds, “instead of identifying, rewarding, and motivating high performers, the GS system rewards mediocrity.”
The proposal would allow increasing retention bonuses from 25 percent to 50 percent of base pay and establishing two career tracks, management and technical, for higher-level employees, management and technical. The maximum buyout amount managers could offer workers to encourage them to leave would increase to $40,000 from $25,000.
Officials want managers to have more authority so they can “divest low performers” — in other words, fire them. “The current performance management system does not effectively hold low performers accountable, offering few negative consequences when an employee falls short of expectations, and gives supervisors unwieldy options for intervening,” the DOD proposal says.
It would allow top officials to suspend an employee without pay. They would have 30 days to prepare a written statement of specific charges, but the employee would have just seven days to respond. That time discrepancy is one example of the plan’s power shift.
There is no doubt the current system can be long and burdensome. The challenge is to develop an efficient system that protects the integrity of the nonpartisan civil service system and provides fair and reasonable due process to employees targeted for dismissal or demotion.
That’s no easy trick.