Simon: No easy answers

DOD's personnel system seems to come from a know-it-all vision

If 17 years of working on behalf of federal employees has taught me anything, it is that no individual should try to describe the perfect personnel system. Nobody has all the answers. That's why the only good answer to the question of what the best personnel system would look like is this: It would emerge from a process of collective bargaining and contain the wisdom of workers and managers.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Defense Department's civilian workers have been justifiably proud of the crucial role they play in maintaining the United States' position as the world's preeminent power. It is ironic, however, that Pentagon officials now seem to have embraced the authoritarianism and state planning associated with the old Soviet society.

DOD's National Security Personnel System (NSPS) has a lot in common with that know-it-all vision. NSPS is inefficient, inflexible, authoritarian and anti-democratic — just like the old Soviet system. In contrast, personnel systems that emerge from collective bargaining are efficient, flexible, democratic and modern.

DOD officials seem oblivious to the fact that it is far more efficient to give workers one set of rules than to discriminate by setting up what amounts to a separate set of rules for each employee.

Flexibility in workforce matters is a two-way street. Nobody who feels bossed around, cheated and disrespected can be flexible. Modern management theory recognizes that the most successful enterprises value input from the workforce. Successful organizations don't suppress it.

Nothing can be created through collective bargaining that doesn't have the support of workers and managers. This point seems lost on many opponents of bargaining, but it bears repeating. Personnel systems created through negotiations allow managers to accomplish their objectives, which is to have employees complete their assignments efficiently and proficiently.

What do federal workers want from collective bargaining? In general, they want to be treated fairly. They want schedules, assignments and opportunities for training and promotion to be distributed according to objective criteria.

Federal employees desire a safe and healthy workplace. They want reasonable accommodations for family obligations, religious principles, and physical and mental abilities. They want a say in the speed and quality standards of their work.

Workers have as great a stake as managers in the success of the enterprise that employs them. They want to be treated like honest, conscientious adults. They want fair compensation that ensures their economic security and doesn't make them feel exploited.

Most importantly, they want all this in a legally enforceable contract, so they can count on it and have their day in court if it is violated.

That's what a good personnel system would look like.

Simon is public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, a union representing 600,000 federal government employees nationwide and abroad. She can be reached at

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group