DHS molds new HR system

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It takes more than a village to create a new federal agency. In the case of the Homeland Security Department, it takes new rules, regulations and workplace cultures to bring 200,000 employees under one umbrella, according to experts.

As DHS struggles to join the personnel policies of 22 disparate agencies into one set of rules and a single pay system, even a special panel that has studied how to do it has been unable to devise a solution.

Instead, the design team of DHS and Office of Personnel Management officials came up with 52 recommendations and sent them to a senior review committee that will cull its own options from the list. But that is only part of a process that will take months to complete.

The review panel will hold public hearings in Washington, D.C., Oct. 20-22 to review the options. DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and OPM Director Kay Coles James will evaluate each option and issue proposed rules for DHS personnel early next year that could affect everything from pay to labor unions.

Issues that must be resolved include how workers are classified, how they are paid and if their work is evaluated on a regular basis. With pages of options, the review panel must decide how to deal with labor relations, what to do about disciplinary actions and how a worker can appeal them.

"The options development process was collaborative," the report said. "However, the design team did not attempt to reach consensus regarding the merits of the options. Consequently, none of the 52 options...represents a consensus view of the design team."

President Bush has said he needs flexibility in an agency that deals with national security. And that is why he is seeking new rules for how DHS workers are hired, paid and disciplined. He wants the power to quickly transfer workers in the event of a national emergency, deploy them differently and use the workforce without interference from workplace rules.

"It's an extremely difficult task under the best of circumstances," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "But it has been politicized by the president when he proposed a sweeping authority, and Republicans used it as a prime attack mode against Democrats in swing Senate races."

In the meantime, many federal workers remain in limbo. A provision in the DHS fiscal 2004 budget capped overtime pay at $30,000 a year. Another gave the DHS Science and Technology Directorate the authority to hire scientists at pay that is competitive with the private sector. And even as DHS reorganizes and eliminates duplication, some jobs will be cut.

Nevertheless, the design team has moved valiantly ahead, suggesting a number of alternatives or proposing to leave things as they are — creating more confusion than clarity.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union and a member of the design team, said she is hopeful a consensus will emerge.

"NTEU invested a lot of time, a lot of expertise into this process," she said. "I continue to believe that DHS and OPM did this because they intend to use the compilation of all this work."

She noted that Ridge could have acted on his own and ordered a new personnel system, but instead he consulted with experts, including the unions representing federal workers.

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Follow the money: DHS personnel

A team of representatives from the Homeland Security Department and Office of Personnel Management has been working to combine personnel processes and systems for the 22 agencies that constitute DHS. The group came up with 52 recommendations.

Among them:

* A traditional graded system with pay progression based primarily on how long the employee has been at that grade level.

* Performance-focused pay based on individual or organizational performance.

* Different pay structures for major DHS occupational groups, such as law enforcement, based on national or local labor markets.

* An employee-based, rather than position-based, pay and classification system (similar to the military or Foreign Service).

* DHS union and management bargaining on issues relating to pay, performance and classification.

* Wide pay bands that replace the current pay system.

Source: Homeland Security Department and Office of Personnel Management

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