Feds balk at DHS personnel rules

Some argue that the changes, which emphasize performance, are not fair

Union officials and lawmakers representing districts with large numbers of federal workers want major changes in the Homeland Security Department’s new human resources system, but proponents of the new rules say the current system needs reform.

“I know a lot of folks are concerned. I know there’s apprehension,” said Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee’s Federal Workforce and Agency Organization Subcommittee, which held a hearing March 2 on the controversial DHS proposal.

Throughout the three-hour session, subcommittee members objected to the regulations issued Feb. 1 and asked officials to revise their plans.

The DHS workforce changes would award raises based on job performance, not seniority, and managers could more easily fire or transfer employees. The system would preserve collective bargaining but reduce the number of situations in which bargaining could occur.

“These final regulations have a strong correlation between performance and pay and greater consideration of local market conditions,” said Ron James, DHS’ chief human capital officer. “The system will make meaningful distinctions in performance and hold employees accountable at all levels.”

Comptroller General David Walker described the new rules as more flexible and more reflective of market conditions. They would pay federal workers similar salaries for similar jobs in the local private sector.

“There have to be reforms,” Walker said. “Eighty-five percent plus of pay adjustments have nothing to do with performance.… You get a pay increase due to the passage of time.”

But the new system, Walker said, still lacks crucial details such as specific criteria for evaluating employees’ performance. DHS officials are “not committed to putting all expectations in writing,” he said.

Walker recommended creating a DHS chief operating officer position, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate for a seven-year term. The COO would be responsible for business transformation processes.

At one point in the testimony, Porter told Walker that some employees would get nervous if they heard his comments. “Flexibility scares employees,” he said. “They’re accustomed to a process.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate, lashed out at some of the new rules. “Are you suggesting that civil servants are incompetent and not deserving of raises?” she asked.

Walker responded by saying that government employees are as good as, if not better than, their commercial-sector peers.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said the new rules alter collective bargaining, allow cronyism and hold employees accountable for performance without adequately defining expectations.

“These regulations are not fair, they are not credible, and they are not transparent,” Davis said.

According to the new rules, an individual might be rated unacceptable, acceptable or outstanding, said Ronald Sanders, associate director of strategic human resources policy at the Office of Personnel Management.

Unacceptable employees won’t get pay increases, and if their performance doesn’t improve, they could be demoted or removed, Sanders said.

DHS officials plan to phase in the new compensation programs during the next three years.

About 8,000 employees in DHS’ headquarters; the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, Science and Technology, and Emergency Preparedness directorates; and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center will convert to the new pay system in early 2006. Pay-for-performance rules will take effect in early 2007 for the rest of DHS.

Designing the new DHS personnel plan

The Government Accountability Office and National Commission on the Public Service Implementation Initiative have established guidelines for creating new personnel rules. The guidelines call for:

  • Developing new rules in cooperation with the Office of Personnel Management.
  • Establishing appeals processes in consultation with the Merit Systems Protection Board.
  • Involving employees in the design and implementation of new rules.
  • Phasing in new rules gradually.
  • Creating opportunities for adequate training.

    — Aliya Sternstein

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