DHS workers brace for change

The Bush administration is expected to receive the final report in November outlining recommendations to remake the personnel system for 180,000 workers at the Homeland Security Department.

The report will be delivered to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James, who then will have the task of deciding what stays and what gets changed.

"I think all of us are aware that the choices made by Secretary Ridge and Director James are likely to reverberate throughout the federal government," said Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), chairwoman of the House Government Reform Committee Civil Service and Agency Organization Subcommittee.

If DHS moves away from the traditional civil service protections and pay scales, "its success or failure in doing so will be a lesson for other departments and agencies," she said at an Oct. 29 committee hearing on the new system.

Although witnesses gave few hints of what a new personnel system would look like, administration officials, members of Congress and union leaders praised the process that resulted in the 52 options for creating a new personnel system at DHS. They admitted, however, that there is still plenty of room for disagreement on the details.

The design team and the senior review team — which included both administration and federal employee union officials — began with the assumption that the new department and its critical missions need a personnel system that will do a better job of responding to performance measures and time-critical needs, such as shifting personnel around.

The 52 options that will be incorporated into the report to Ridge and James represent a wide range of mechanisms, and the purpose is to provide a high-level structure within which Ridge and James can determine the specifics. For example, pay banding is one form of pay-for-performance, but there are multiple ways to put pay banding in place, according to Steven Cohen, OPM's senior adviser for homeland security.

"These options, really, they're intended to be conceptual in nature," Cohen said. When Ridge and James sit down with the report to determine what the system that will be released for comment will look like, "they'll be looking at broad program elements as opposed to specific measures," he said.

Once the proposed system is released to the public, agency officials will step up their meetings with union leaders and other employee organizations, said Ronald James, DHS' chief human capital officer.

However, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, and John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said they are concerned about the lack of details and pressed administration officials to strongly consider the options that focus on modifying and enhancing the current General Schedule system rather than completely replacing it, particularly on the pay-for-performance issue.

Both encouraged officials to fix the management of pay raises federal workers get within their specified pay grades.

"Most problems [are related to the] administration of the system, rather than to the design of the GS system itself," Kelley testified. Problems include lack of money for raises and lack of training for supervisors who determine pay raises.

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