Changes required

In recent years, we have heard dire warnings about the aging federal workforce. Those predictions have not come to pass, largely because the failing economy has limited the job options outside the government. That aside, there is little doubt that the federal personnel system is broken. It is complex and overly bureaucratic.

Lawmakers and the Bush administration have taken a swing at trying to change that. The National Defense Authorization Act, which the president signed late last month, includes the National Security Personnel System, which provides the Defense Department with more flexibility in hiring, classifying, paying and promoting employees.

The system combines several pay and personnel systems and links pay to performance, giving managers greater leeway for hiring and firing.

The changes, though aimed at solving legitimate problems, have some employees concerned, especially union members, who argue that the new system removes any strengths employees may have had. And there are significant concerns that politics could play a role in hiring. Or firing.

Those concerns are valid. But inaction is no longer an option. The cliche is actually true: Things have changed as a result of Sept. 11, 2001.

During the past few years, DOD has been under intense pressure to transform. Some of that is the result of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plan to change the military. But much of it has come about because of a dramatically different post-Cold War landscape. Although the rest of the military has been forced to change, its pay and personnel system remains largely untouched.

Today, agencies have to be more agile and flexible than they were before. And being efficient and productive requires systemic changes — not the least of which means rethinking outdated personnel policies and practices.

Do these changes go too far? Will they solve the problems? It is unlikely. But we will undoubtedly learn something during the coming years that can improve personnel practices across the federal government.

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