Controversial to the max

DHS is moving quickly to deploy a pay-for-performance system

The Homeland Security Department is pushing hard to set up MaxHR, a human resources information system for most of the department. But Congress, employee unions and outside experts have questioned DHS' haste and are increasingly skeptical of some features of the new system.

MaxHR will support a pay-for-performance approach to employee raises and promotions. DHS employees are currently paid based on the 15-grade General Schedule pay scale that federal agencies have used for 50 years. The new system seeks to give managers more flexibility to reassign employees.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he supports the changes as part of his review of the department. Chertoff emphasized that DHS needs to be more responsive to risks, vulnerabilities and consequences of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Results of the review are expected in early July.

This month, during his first appearance before the House Government Reform Committee, Chertoff told lawmakers that the rapid deployment of the new human resources system is essential for DHS employees to become more efficient and accountable. Delays will only cause more anxiety, he said.

Chertoff asked House lawmakers to restore $26 million they removed from the $53 million budget request for MaxHR.

But some committee members questioned why DHS was rushing ahead after Defense Department officials said they plan to take stock of their proposed pay-for-performance system before proceeding.

Bush administration officials have said they want to move ahead with the civil service changes, and Office of Personnel Management officials said they want to use MaxHR as a template for such changes governmentwide. OPM is preparing draft legislation to extend personnel reforms governmentwide.

"It's pretty widely known that DHS needs to do this," said a source familiar with the proposed pay-for-performance transformation who requested anonymity because it is such a sensitive subject for department leaders and employees.

Pay for performance is DHS' attempt to create a more innovative and motivated workforce, the source said, adding that DHS officials are pushing hard to define workable requirements for the MaxHR system.

DHS is not rushing its implementation of MaxHR, department spokesman Larry Orluskie said. The project has been under development for the past 18 months with experts from across DHS deciding on best practices, he said, adding that the program continues to progress. For example, in April

DHS signed a $1.5 million contract with Softscape for performance management software.

DHS officials are cautious when discussing MaxHR because they are afraid to confront the unions, said a DHS official who requested anonymity. Private-sector partners are also loath to discuss the program for fear of alienating DHS and losing access to future contracts, the official said.

Unions have vehemently opposed the changes at DHS, complaining that they would reduce employees' collective bargaining rights and loosen management's requirements to consult unions on decisions.

"It's killing morale," said Chuck Showalter, president of the National Homeland Security Council. The council is affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees, a union with 22,000 DHS employees as members.

Pay for performance would make law enforcement officers, inspectors and agents compete against one another instead of working as a team, Showalter said. If Congress doesn't appropriate enough money for pay for performance, officers with better numbers or living in more expensive areas would take money away from others, he said.

Additionally, rewarding agents who arrest more people won't make them more effective, Showalter said. Instead, it will lead to lawsuits and damage the public's trust in law enforcement, he said.

The proposed changes would give managers unchecked power over employees and gut grievance procedures, Showalter said.

Under MaxHR, every manager becomes "judge, jury, executioner and witness in the case, and there's no outside appeal," he said. "It's a kangaroo court."

DHS' HR challenge

Homeland Security Department officials have a challenging project ahead as they attempt to design MaxHR, a new personnel system for most of the department's 22 agencies. Here are several of the constraints under which they must work:

  • Policy — Implement the workforce provisions of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
  • Project budget — $53 million.
  • Number of employees affected — 110,000.

— Michael Arnone

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