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

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