Editorial: Change, but fairly

Controversy about the Bush administration's proposed personnel system changes at the Homeland Security and Defense departments continues to swirl. The changes, and their larger implications, are critically important.

The proposal represents the most sweeping overhaul of the federal personnel system in half a century, and it is clearly a step toward the Bush administration's goal of enacting similar reforms governmentwide.

The heart of the administration's proposal is the creation of a more direct link between pay and performance.

Few people would oppose that concept. But, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. And we don't yet have enough details.

Many employees feel the proposed changes give managers too much authority to tinker with salaries, shift work assignments, strip workers of basic rights and destroy morale. And they don't trust managers to effectively judge performance.

All parties — employers, employees, unions and lawmakers — need to be careful to ensure that the new system is fair to everybody.

Current personnel rules focus too much on seniority and not enough on performance. A performance-based personnel system has its shortcomings, however, particularly in the government. In many cases, an employee's success or failure depends on others. Despite arguments that the government should run like a business, it usually doesn't.

And who decides what qualifies as good performance? The civil service is meant to avoid political favoritism. Problems could arise when political appointees determine how a civil-service employee has performed.

Perhaps it is time for a new employer/employee relationship in government with more emphasis on performance. The unions can play an effective role in developing a fair system, and they should have a seat at the table. But the unions need to be active participants rather than obstacles to new ideas.

These are interesting times, challenging and tough. The potential for accomplishment is much greater than in the past, and the government's personnel regulations should reflect that. Underlying any changes, however, should be the principle that employees must be treated fairly.

— Christopher J. Dorobek

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