NSPS moves off dead center, but not by much

DOD’s controversial National Security Personnel System faces continuing resistance from employee unions and an authorization time clock that is running out

The Defense Department introduced a new employment and pay plan — the National Security Personnel System — more than a year ago, but the program is as controversial now as it was when DOD first proposed it, and its future is still uncertain. A seesaw court battle that began when employee unions challenged the system’s legality recently tilted  in favor of DOD. However, the unions have vowed to continue the fight to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Congress — despite a presidential veto threat — is gearing up to pass authorization bills that would strip DOD of much of its authority under NSPS. DOD continues to teach program managers, employees and human resources officials the new employment rules without any certainty that NSPS will survive a 2009 reauthorization deadline.

Despite the uncertainty, NSPS Program Executive Mary Lacey sounded confident in a recent interview. A veteran of complex technical DOD programs, she’s in charge of implementing the new pay system for DOD’s more than 600,000 civilian employees. Even with the legislative and legal distractions, Lacey said she felt “comfortable we are going in the right direction.”
 
Rumsfeld’s program
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposed NSPS as a centerpiece of his efforts to transform DOD to meet 21st-century threats. NSPS is an alternative to the 50-year-old civil service plan for paying employees according to their length of service. It replaces the General Schedule pay scale with one in which DOD’s civilian employees are assigned to pay bands and receive raises according to the performance level they achieve each year. Instead of steady, predetermined increases, raises depend mostly on supervisors’ evaluations.

Rumsfeld said NSPS would give management flexibility and the ability to recruit the  talent needed in the ongoing fight against terrorism. He also said it would make civilian employees see themselves as integral to DOD’s overall mission.

Unions, however, saw NSPS as a threat to their bargaining rights. They blamed  Rumsfeld, and the hard language didn’t stop even after he stepped down in late 2006. In testimony before a House panel earlier this year, Ron Ault, an AFL-CIO official, said NSPS was Rumsfeld’s attempt to create a paramilitary force of civilian employees and private contractors that could be deployed at any time into combat zones worldwide.

“This ‘backdoor draft’ of placing our members in a theater of war under possible hostile-fire conditions could not have been accomplished under [previous rules] without Secretary Rumsfeld sitting down with labor organizations,” Ault said. “That, I believe, was the catalyst for DOD’s NSPS.”

Ault said NSPS has no credibility with union members. Speaking on behalf of the United DOD Workers Coalition, a group of 36 labor organizations representing 750,000 DOD civilian workers, he said unions will never accept it.

After the unions filed a lawsuit in 2005 alleging that NSPS illegally stripped them of their collective bargaining rights, all subsequent court decisions supported them. However, in May, a divided District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to reverse a lower court’s decision and opened the way once again for DOD to implement its NSPS plan.

The ruling said the National Defense Authorization Act of 2004 gave the Defense secretary the right to “curtail collective bargaining,” at least until the current authority for NSPS ends in 2009. However, the unions don’t intend that ruling to be the final word on the matter, said Matt Biggs, a coalition spokesman. It has 45 days from the May 18 decision to file an appeal with the full 10-member appeals court, and if that fails, the group will probably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Biggs said.

Rolling rollout
Lacey said the unions’ actions won’t stop DOD from continuing its deployment of NSPS, although their activities could slow some aspects of the NSPS implementation. DOD will not convert bargaining-unit employees to NSPS until the appeals window expires, or until the union appeals are decided.

“That’s added a level of complexity, since we’ll have to go back and do over [employee] training at particular sites,” Lacey said. However, she added, “we didn’t want to put bargaining-unit employees into the program only to have to take them out again.”

Training employees in what will be expected of them under NSPS and working on communication and team-building skills are among the most difficult aspects of implementing NSPS, Lacey said. Every employee will have an opportunity to take online and classroom courses. An NSPS 101 course is open to everyone. Beyond that, people will be trained according to need. Employees can receive at least one day of performance training, and supervisors will receive two days of training.

Human resources professionals, who for a while will have to administer two separate personnel systems, will get three days of training.

However, Lacey said, not everyone must take the courses. DOD has 160,000 employees already trained to write job performance objectives using a framework known as SMART — specific, measurable, aligned, realistic/relevant and timed.
 
Robbie Kunreuther, a former federal government personnel manager who founded his own training company, Government Personnel Services, said he is skeptical about the quality and amount of training DOD is providing. Kunreuther said he worked with managers who received training in the first spiral of the NSPS implementation, and he found them unprepared to do basic performance evaluations.

“DOD supervisors and managers are not taught how to gather evidence of performance over a year,” Kunreuther said. “As far as pay-for-performance is concerned, there’s no understanding in the DOD supervisors I meet of how to make that work. It’s 100 percent a subjective thing for them.”

Kunreuther also questioned the effectiveness of DOD’s SMART techniques for performance evaluation, which look good on paper but are difficult to apply, he said. DOD’s human resources organizations have specialists in staffing and workforce development, he said, but few specialists with expertise in evaluating employee performance.

“I doubt that 10 people in the whole of DOD human resources are focused on performance evaluation,” he said.

Lacey said she agreed that greater human resources expertise is something DOD will need as NSPS progresses. Human resources  offices must focus on performance management and compensation, she said. “We’re getting up to speed on other things pretty well, but we are still lacking a capability in performance evaluation. That is a concern.”

Some political observers, however, question whether those concerns might become irrelevant. After several years of intense lobbying in Congress, the unions and other organizations opposed to NSPS have some lawmakers sympathetic to their point of view who have been able to act since Democrats took control of Congress in January.

In May, the House passed by a large bipartisan majority its version of the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill, which largely blocks the intentions of NSPS proponents. Just days before, the House Armed Services Committee had unanimously voted out its markup of the bill.

Major action promised

After the markup, White House officials  quickly issued a veto threat. In a statement of administration policy, they said the Bush administration strongly opposed the bill’s NSPS provisions.

“These changes eviscerate our effort to make civilians equal partners in the  department at war by removing most NSPS flexibilities and completely revoking the adverse actions, appeals and labor relations portions of the NSPS,” it states. “They also back away from pay for performance.”

A week later, the Senate Armed Services Committee completed a markup of its version of the authorization bill, which included an NSPS provision. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version would allow DOD to continue its efforts to develop a pay-for-performance system provided that the department implements it in a manner consistent with existing federal labor relations law.

At press time, no date had been set for full Senate consideration of the bill.

Biggs said the presidential veto was expected, but the strength of votes in the House and Senate has given employee unions hope that legislation repealing all or at least a major part of NSPS will pass this year. During the full House debate, no one offered an amendment to strip the NSPS language from the bill, he said.

Political observers, including Biggs, expect a similar outcome in the Senate.

“We’re very confident about the [House/Senate] conference on the bill,” Biggs said. “We’ll be pushing for the House language to be adopted, but one way or the other we feel certain there’ll be major action on NSPS.”
NSPS raises concerns about employee turnoverOne of the effects of the National Security Personnel System that officials are monitoring is employee morale. They have concerns about the way a change from a scheduled compensation scheme to one based on performance could affect employee turnover.

Under NSPS, employees are expected to work with their supervisors to define objectives for their work and establish a performance plan that’s aligned with their organization’s goals. That’s a tough thing to do, experts say, and the first year of such performance-related plans can be full of misunderstandings and grievances that take a toll on morale.

Mary Lacey, NSPS’ program executive, said it is possible that morale has been affected. However, from what she’s observed, low morale has not been a significant problem.

The main NSPS Web site (www.cpms.osd.mil/nsps) has a “Contact Us” button for employees to submit their questions and concerns. There’s been a large decline in technical questions about NSPS, Lacey said. That indicates that the training that people are receiving about NSPS is starting to stick and that they are getting more comfortable with the program, she added.

However, for some, it’s not sticking. “We are also hearing from some employees that they hate it, and some of them are talking with their feet,” Lacey said. “I think it’s OK that people who don’t want to work with this new outcomes-based program leave,” she added.

On the other hand, she said, some people who had been considered mediocre employees under the old pay system are now blossoming under NSPS.

— Brian Robinson
National Security Personnel System timelineThe Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System got off to a rocky start and hasn’t fully gained momentum.

2003
  • Congress authorizes the National Security Personnel System under the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a sunset provision that ends the program in 2009.
2005
  • DOD publishes proposed and final NSPS regulations after receiving about 50,000 comments during the public comment period.
  • Employee unions file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the legality of NSPS.

2006
  • DOD begins the NSPS rollout in April with a plan to include 11,000 employees in the first wave of conversions to the new pay system.
2007
  • DOD makes the first payouts under the NSPS pay-for-performance scheme, resulting in an average 2.6 percent increase in base salaries.
  • A federal appeals court hands down a decision backing DOD’s authority to implement NSPS.
  • The House and Senate pass DOD authorization bills that strike down most of the provisions of NSPS.
  • A much-anticipated report from Government Accountability Office on the cost of implementing NSPS is scheduled for publication July 20.

— Brian Robinson

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