DOD: Congress must fix NSPS

Unions back House provisions to change NSPS

Defense Department labor unions are urging conferees on the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill to include provisions from the House version in the final legislation that would revise the National Security Personnel System (NSPS).

In a recent letter, the United Department of Defense Workers Coalition asked conferees to support language in the House bill that would restore full bargaining rights to DOD’s unions. The Senate bill applies some limits to bargaining, said Matt Biggs, legislative and political director at the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and a spokesman for UDDWC.

“The House bill puts back in place the [full] scope of bargaining for federal workers,” Biggs said. “While the Senate bill puts in place collective bargaining, it still allows the secretary of Defense to overrule any collective bargaining issue through what’s called an implementing issuance.”

Biggs said the unions are also asking conferees to back two provisions in the Senate bill. One would repeal pay for performance for DOD’s blue-collar workers. The other would exempt DOD labs from NSPS.

Conferees were expected to meet this week to settle the differences between the bills.

Coalition members say they are confident that conferees will agree on changes to NSPS in the final legislation package. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to definitely get reform,” Biggs said. However, he added, “we’re not sure what it’s going to look like at this point.”

— Richard W. Walker

The Defense Department needs to build a consensus with members of Congress on disputed portions of the National Security Personnel System before DOD can finish deploying the system departmentwide, a top DOD official said. Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, said DOD and Congress must first resolve collective bargaining issues in the four-year-old statute that authorized NSPS.

An appeals court decision earlier this year upheld the original collective-bargaining provisions of NSPS, giving DOD permission to implement them. However, Dominguez said, “we are not going to move forward with organized labor, even though we won the suit. We’re not moving forward until we reach accommodation and consensus with Congress on how to proceed with the legislation.”

Dominguez spoke about NSPS Oct. 23 at a panel discussion on federal workforce transformation sponsored by Accenture and the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

He said DOD had engaged in a “pretty robust dialogue with our organized-labor partners, but they’re not satisfied, and Congress isn’t either.” Defense unions have maintained that NSPS strips away workers rights, including the constitutional right to organize.

Many Democrats agree. Since gaining control of Congress this year, Democratic leaders have sought to repeal or reform parts of NSPS, which will put about 650,000 DOD civilian employees under a system that bases pay raises primarily on performance rather than years of government employment. Both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2008 Defense authorization legislation contain language that would change the collective bargaining and other labor-related portions of NSPS.

Dominguez said the legislation doesn’t address the problem of having to bargain with DOD’s multitude of unions, which would defeat the flexibility that DOD was seeking when it created the system.

More than 1,560 independent labor units represent DOD’s civilian workforce. Negotiating with that many units would make it impossible to quickly implement a global personnel system change across an organization as large DOD, he said.

“The key to progress, starting with Congress, is to find a way to do collective bargaining that can move us forward — not with 1,560 different entities with a risk of 1,560 different outcomes that take more than two decades to get to,” Dominguez said in an interview.

Dominguez said he is not casting aspersions on DOD’s unions. “These are quality people who want to do the right thing for America and the right thing for their union membership,” he said. “I am saying that it’s a difficult challenge when the way we organize [union] labor in the federal government leaves me with 1,560 independent bargaining units.”

DOD will seek authority from Congress to use national-level bargaining or a similar vehicle “to help us deal more globally on some issues” instead of having to negotiate with each union, Dominguez said.

Members of Congress understand the need for that authority and will take action, Dominguez said. “I’m optimistic about a way to move things forward. The head-knocking and the court stuff took a little bit of time. So we’ll see.”

Union opposition has slowed NSPS, beginning in November 2005 when the American Federation of Government Employees and United Department of Defense Workers Coalition, representing about 600,000 civilian employees, sued to block portions of NSPS. In February 2006, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. But in May, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned the lower court’s ruling and upheld DOD’s authority to curtail collective bargaining.

Despite the protracted battle with labor, DOD has moved ahead with deploying the human resources components of NSPS. About 113,000 workers are covered by NSPS rules that govern staffing decisions, job classification and performance management. The Pentagon expects to move another 75,000 employees to the system by March 2008 under Spiral 2, the second increment in the NSPS rollout.

Dominguez said the department has the stable leadership needed to see it through to full deployment, and DOD officials remain enthusiastic about converting to NSPS. “NSPS is now largely led by, motivated by and owned by the career civil service and military [leaders],” Dominguez said.
“Those are the people who are guiding it. … At the political level, we have to make sure we engage with Congress this year to make sure it sustains.” Dominguez said it isn’t easy to “do something as transformational” as NSPS, but he added that “we’re very upbeat about the progress we’re making in the human resources, performance-management piece of the NSPS process.”

The goal of NSPS is achieving mission-focused agility departmentwide so DOD can respond quickly to national-security contingencies, Dominguez said. NSPS involves realigning DOD to mission outcomes and pushing that effort throughout the organization, he said. “That’s a [leadership] thing, not a civilian personnel management thing. NSPS is a catalyst for that global change.” Approaching NSPS as a management program has helped DOD move forward on NSPS, said Kevin Mahoney, associate director of human capital leadership and merit systems at the Office of Personnel Management.

“I think it will bear fruit over time,” Mahoney said.

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