Fed officials see uncertain future for NSPS

Federal officials have predicted an uncertain future for the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System (NSPS) when a review of its operations is completed.

DOD and the Office of Personnel Management have started a review of NSPS’ fairness, transparency, underlying policies and effectiveness. The review, which could take several months, would also evaluate managing a workforce under multiple systems, said Brad Bunn, DOD's program executive officer for NSPS, during a hearing held April 1 by the House Armed Services Committee's Readiness Subcommittee. 

DOD has 205,000 civilian employees under the system, but it has halted further conversions of about 2,000 employees to NSPS pending the results of the review. NSPS consists of a performance management process used to evaluate employees, flexible job classifications and a pay system based on performance.

Bunn said the system can only be successful with the full commitment of civilian and military leaders and managers. The timeout provided by the review gives the Obama administration's DOD executives an opportunity to grapple with the fundamental issues and underlying design principles of NSPS, he said.

“What I think is going to happen is that they will struggle with figuring out what things are implementation issues and what are fundamental design or systemic issues," he said. "Frankly, we’re just far enough along in the implementation to start seeing and discern those things."

When asked if the system would be tweaked or ditched, Bunn said, “Ultimately, it could go either way."

DOD should keep the performance-based component of NSPS but fix its weaknesses, said Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management issues at the Government Accountability Office. GAO officials advocate tweaking NSPS because the agency strongly believes in performance management systems, she said.

“Performance management has given DOD the opportunity to re-energize and refocus its efforts and look at how they hire, develop and pay employees for their performance,” she said.

Darryl Perkinson, national president of the Federal Managers Association, recommended going back to the General Schedule pay system "only because it would be easier for managers.” For example, in his position as the nuclear training manager for the production training department at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va., he manages DOD employees under multiple pay systems.

He said many of the association's members have called for a return to the GS system because of its certainty and reliability. However, it is not a sustainable tool for recruitment, he said. Other managers and supervisors support NSPS because they are “finally being rewarded for the job they do and enjoy the flexibility that NSPS offers them,” he added.

“Any pay system — whether it be NSPS, GS or something entirely different — must adhere to certain basic principles,” Perkinson said. "A shift in the culture of any organization cannot come without an interactive training process that brings together the managers responsible for implementing the personnel system and the employees they supervise."

Bunn said surveys of the workforce show positive attitudes among employees covered by NSPS about some aspects of the system. However, some employees question whether supervisors have the skills necessary to fairly assess performance and the appropriateness of the pay pool panels involved in performance ratings.

“Employees and supervisors are struggling with the more stringent performance measures used in the evaluation process, and employees are questioning whether the ratings are fair,” Bunn said.

DOD needs to develop a comprehensive action plan and take specific steps to reduce negative employee perceptions of NSPS, Farrell said. Otherwise, DOD's civilian employees will likely continue to question the fairness of their ratings and express a lack of confidence in the system, she added.

DOD also needs to encourage pay pools to make meaningful distinctions in employee performance, she said. Without that, employees might continue to feel “devalued,” which could influence morale and motivation.

DOD has taken steps to involve employees in NSPS’ implementation. It has also linked employee objectives to the agency’s strategic goals and mission, trained managers and employees in the system’s operation, and better tied individual pay to performance in an equitable manner, Farrell said. However, DOD still lacks a process to determine whether NSPS rating results are non-discriminatory before they are finalized, she said. DOD does not require a third party to analyze the pre-decision rating results for anomalies.

Although it takes several years for employees to accept big organizational changes, “the degree of ultimate success of NSPS is largely dependent upon the extent to which DOD incorporates these internal safeguards and addresses employee perceptions,” Farrell said.

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Reader comments

Mon, Apr 6, 2009 NSPS Failures

Not only is this program an administrative burden for both supervisors and the employees it fails to objectively recognize the top performer's by putting 95% of the employees in the same catergory/shares (valued performers). Making the top 5% (additional shares/bonuses) is more subjectives than ever.

Mon, Apr 6, 2009

I taught Performance Management classes for employees and supervisors when the system was rolled out three years ago. I have personally been through two performance cycles. NSPS works well in theory, but fails in execution. The main reason I have found is supervisors have neither the skill or time to effectively utilize NSPS. My current boss is an excellent supervisor with the exception of how he handles NSPS. For example, I got my new job objectives in January. His delay may affect my performance assessment, but not his since he is in the military. This is not an isolated example of failure of the system. Last performance cycle I was a different command with a civilian supervisor. For my annual assessment, my supervisor created his annual assessment of me by replacing the word 'I' in my self assessment with my last name. A quick 'search and replace' approach to creating an annual assessment. Since I taught the Perfomance Management class to supervisors I know this is not what NSPS had envisioned well they developed the system. Just my two cents worth.

Fri, Apr 3, 2009 Johnny

NSPS has failed to live up to the expectations from an employee point of view. Expectations of fairness, greater opportunity for advancement and pay, and living up to its intended purpose as briefing points did nothing in wider pools. Obvious discrepencies and unrealistic ideologies create future hostile environments and distrust among employees and management. There is no way tweaks can fix an already overly ambitious system. Those who believe that it recognizes their hard work should remember their oath and understand what public service is suppose to be. Best advice is to do some research for the common good. This is a good example of encouraging selfish service rather than selfless service. Changing the system was definitely not the answer.

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