Homeland HR plan criticized

The part of President Bush's proposal for the new Homeland Security Department that would create a human resources system with broad authority to hire, retain and fire employees has drawn the ire of both federal employees' unions and members of the House and Senate committees studying the proposal. The blueprint for the new department, which Bush delivered to Congress June 18, would give the new secretary and the director of the Office of Personnel Management authority to create "a modern, flexible and responsive [human resources] program."

"Those are absolutely meaningless words," said Jacque Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). "They're just code for taking away the entire merit system that's the basic foundation of the civil service. We're going to do everything we can to take this part out of this bill."

Not only is the proposal for the human resources program vague, but "when we ask [the administration] what they want to do, their response is, 'Provide the new secretary with maximum flexibility,' which doesn't really tell us anything," said Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "We would welcome the opportunity to work with them, but we're not going to sign a blank sheet of paper."

Members of the House Government Reform Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee also sharply questioned Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge about the human resources part of the proposal when he testified at hearings on the new department that both committees held June 20.

Senate Governmental Affairs member Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) told Ridge that he was concerned about the need for "enhanced management flexibility" in the bill.

The workforce challenges that the flexibilities are supposed to address are not new, and agencies already have the tools to address 90 percent of those needs, according to the General Accounting Office comptroller general, Akaka said.

Ridge said that the president believes the new secretary needs managerial flexibilities to organize the department, reprogram money and transfer people.

Finding intelligence analysts to staff the new department will be a "unique challenge," however, Ridge added, because the new agency will be competing for analysts with the FBI and CIA. Filling the analyst ranks may require hiring retired federal employees and recruiting from the private sector. "Giving the [new] department the requested flexibilities will only help this effort," he said.

When Rep. Ed Schrock (R-Va.) asked during the House committee hearing about how to handle the interoperability problems with the new department's information technology, Ridge said that the flexibilities would give the new secretary the ability to move both the IT systems and the people who would be using those systems.

"The new Cabinet secretary's got a lot of work to do...to improve the information flow among and between agencies," he said.

Ridge also said that the proposal doesn't actually mandate a new system but simply gives the new secretary the authority to use flexibilities for accountability, performance rewards and salaries that will contribute to better retention.

AFGE's Simon argued, however, that the proposal clearly states that the existing terms and conditions of employment — including pay — that employees would bring with them would be maintained only for a transitional period of no more than one year.

"Then the clear implication is they would take away the right to collective bargaining," she said.

"Nothing this major has happened since the Pendleton Act in 1883," which established the Civil Service Commission, Simon added. "This proposal is that sweeping."

Diane Frank contributed to this story.

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Agility is crucial

Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge testified before the House Government Reform Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee June 20 that the new Homeland Security Department "must be an agile, fast-paced and responsive organization that takes advantage of 21st-century technology and management techniques to meet a 21st-century threat."

According to Ridge, those techniques include:

* Great latitude in redeploying resources, both human and financial, "to respond to rapidly changing conditions."

* Broad reorganizational authority "to enhance operational effectiveness, as needed."

* Significant flexibility in hiring processes, compensation systems and practices, and performance management "to recruit, retain and develop a motivated, high-performance and accountable workforce."

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