Panel knocks DOD personnel proposal

Lawmakers April 29 criticized a Defense Department proposal to overhaul its civilian personnel system, saying the plan is being rushed, lacks important details and undermines federal worker protections.

As part of a legislative package sent to Capitol Hill April 11, DOD proposed to transform how its civilian employees are hired, paid and managed.

The proposal would create a National Security Personnel System that would extend pay banding, pay-for-performance and other flexibilities departmentwide and would institute other changes, such as the ability to bargain with employee unions at the national instead of local level.

DOD's civilian personnel management system needs to be changed because it is "fragmented, lacks clear performance signals, and is slow at hiring and task management," said David Chu, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in his testimony before a House subcommittee.

However, many members of the subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization expressed concern over the proposal.

"Given the Bush administration's track record on civil service issues, there's no reason to think that DOD's new system will be a fair one," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) at the subcommittee hearing. "There's also no reason to think the new personnel system will be a good one."

Waxman said a recent General Accounting Office report criticized DOD's civilian strategic plan. GAO called it, in his words, "completely lacking."

"This hardly inspires confidence for what DOD might do if we give them this authority," he continued.

However, Chu said DOD has 20 years of experience with demonstration projects, which allow the department to experiment with alternative personnel systems.

The bill needs more careful consideration, Waxman and others said, and should not be rushed through Congress. The House Government Reform Committee is expected to mark up the legislation May 1, and the following week the House Armed Services Committee will consider the proposal, which will be part of the Defense authorization bill.

Subcommittee chairwoman Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) said it's unlikely that either committee will change its schedule. Responding to a question from Davis, Chu said it's unlikely that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would consider separating the proposal from the Defense authorization bill to give Congress more time to consider it.

Davis questioned a provision in the proposal that would allow DOD to overrule the Office of Personnel Management on workforce issues deemed important to national security. "What is essential to national security?" she asked, saying the term was too vague. She also questioned whether OPM would have less of a role.

"There is no intention to cut OPM out of its strategic oversight role," said deputy director of OPM Dan Blair at the hearing. It might make OPM's role harder, "but that's no reason not to do it." Chu assured Davis that DOD and OPM are partners, but said there will be times when "we will disagree."

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) asked about a provision that would change how employees are paid for overtime work. "Why eliminate overtime?" she asked. Chu said there are some employees who work overtime who are worse off under the existing system.

Another area of contention is employee labor unions that were not involved in designing the proposal. Bobby Harnage Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, asked the subcommittee to reject the legislation. Chu said he believes that "we do know what our employees want."

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