Bush signs bill transforming DOD HR

When President Bush signed the Defense Authorization bill into law last week, he ushered in a new era for Defense Department civilian employees.

Included in the law is the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), which will not only combine several pay and personnel systems but will also link pay to performance and give greater leeway to managers for hiring and firing employees. DOD officials have been pushing for the change in policy for some time but met resistance from congressional Democrats and federal employees' unions.

NSPS would specifically give DOD Secretary Donald Rumsfeld more flexibility in hiring, classifying, paying, promoting and firing employees, and thereby bypass employee management policies that have been in place for decades. The provision will make it easier to hire technical employees and scientists, often some of the most difficult people to find and retain.

"In order to secure critical expertise, the conferees authorize the Defense secretary to hire highly qualified personnel with uniquely critical technical, scientific and management skills at appropriate pay for up to five years, with the possibility of a one-year extension," the law states.

Those personnel changes signal a radical departure from DOD's traditional hiring practices, which often involve months of interviewing and background checks. DOD personnel managers have long lamented the bureaucratic process, arguing that they lose highly qualified people when candidates grow frustrated with the laborious procedures necessary to get a job with DOD.

The personnel provisions say that federal employees can still organize and bargain collectively, but the American Federation of Government Employees argues that the bill hampers union efforts.

"People join the civil service because they know the benefits of working for the federal government for a number of years," said Don Hale, chairman of AFGE's Defense Conference group. When pay-for-performance is implemented, "it will establish such a system of cronyism because decisions are being left in the hands of managers who are incapable of handling" the decision of who gets paid, how much they get paid and why.

The adopted provisions create a "more flexible merit-based pay system to attract and retain talented individuals in government service," according to a House Armed Services Committee report on the authorization act.

DOD leaders praised the legislation, saying it creates a clear path for the department. In a statement, David Chu, DOD undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said, "What this does is liberate us from the perceived restrictions of the past. It gives us a modern transformational way of hiring people, advancing them, reassigning them."

Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said NSPS gives DOD the flexibility needed to transform from its Cold War posture into a more dynamic and fluid organization.

"The new system will bring the department into the 21st century and allow [it] to recruit the best and brightest civilian employees," the congressmen said in a statement.

John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the Partnership for Public Service, said he is cautiously optimistic that the added flexibility in the bill could give DOD what it needs to transform its personnel policies.

"There is nothing inherent in the NSPS that is certain to be harmful to the interests of civilian employees in the Defense Department, and there are some potential benefits that could accrue, but 'could' is the operative word," Palguta said. "Whether the positive results sought through the NSPS are realized will depend on how well the provisions are implemented and fine-tuned."

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The rest of the authorization bill

The 2004 Defense Authorization bill also calls for:

* Formation of a Joint Tactical Radio System management office.

* Formation of a global research watch program to monitor research and technologies being developed by the military forces of allies and potential enemies.

* An experiment to demonstrate and evaluate available joint Blue Force Tracking technologies.

* Withholding $170 million from the Army's Future Combat Systems program until an independent panel reviews the program's progress and until the Defense Acquisition Board conducts a "milestone B" review.

* Creation of a research and development program to promote high-speed, high-bandwidth communications capabilities for supporting network-centric operations.

* Requiring the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to report to Congress every other year on the research programs the agency supports and the strategy to turn that research into applied technologies.

Source: 2004 Defense Authorization bill

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