NSPS is dead; long live NSPS

A post-Halloween ghost story on coming back from the grave

The fear of premature burial, or being planted in the ground while merely unconscious, has been around for thousands of years. The panic reached a peak during the Victorian era amid widespread publicity about people who were buried, then recovered, but who subsequently died from terror or lack of oxygen.

Which brings us to the “death” of the controversial National Security Personnel System. NSPS was killed off — we’re told — as part of the package of goodies given to federal workers and retirees in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed on Oct. 28.

Many people and groups — especially federal unions — rejoiced at the action and immediately wrote obituaries announcing the happy event: that NSPS is to be stopped in its tracks, and that no more Defense civilians will go into it until plans can be drawn up to convert them back to the General Schedule pay system. With 220,000 people currently covered by NSPS, that will take some time.

But there is an escape mechanism in NSPS that few have considered. It provides a six-month window during which backers of a pay-for-performance concept can come up with a new plan — one that Congress and federal unions could buy into. While it is unlikely that such a plan will be drafted, much less approved, it does open up the possibility that something like NSPS — maybe Son of NSPS, using different rules and criteria — might come back to life in another form.

“It is not likely to happen — but, yes, there is a provision in the Defense Act that more or less gives the government six months to come up with Plan B,” said a union lobbyist who asked not to be identified. “There are a lot of people in high places that think the GS system is flawed. We [the unions] are irritated when the NSPS is referred to as ‘pay for performance’ because we already have that in the GS system. But that’s how they picture it, and that’s how they sold it to Congress during the Bush administration.

“Our union thinks NSPS was a Donald Rumsfeld production, and eliminating it, if that is what eventually happens, will be the last of his ‘reforms,’” the lobbyist said.

I mention this because the Obama administration, on the separate federal employees issue of accrued sick leave, has made it very clear that it did not support — and would not support — language to permit Federal Employees Retirement System employees to apply their unused sick leave toward their service computation for retirement purposes. Administration officials say it is too expensive, and they made sure Senate conferees stripped that provision (which had been approved by the House) from the final conference report for the so-called “tobacco bill.”

But the above-cited lobbyist told me that the administration’s opposition to the FERS sick-leave credit was part of a high-level poker game between the White House and federal unions. All of the unions (or their leaders) endorsed and worked for the Obama-Biden ticket, which they have been reluctant to criticize for anything — so far.

The deal, the lobbyist surmised at the time, would be this: The administration would cave on the FERS sick-leave credit (a very, very big deal and a major benefits improvement) if federal unions would mute their criticism of the 2 percent federal pay raise proposed by the White House. The unions (and many of their members) think it is unfair that Congress approved a 3.4 percent raise for military personnel. But the labor honchos stuck with the White House on the 2 percent figure for white-collar federal workers. So the lobbyist was correct: the FERS sick-leave credit went through even after many people — including me — said the plan was dead and buried.

As it turned out, it was buried but not exactly dead.

Clearly somebody heard the sounds from the crypt. Since unearthed, it is now law, and it means that FERS employees retiring between now and Jan. 1, 2014, will get time credit toward retirement for 50 percent of the sick leave they save. After that date, they will get full credit, just like Civil Service Retirement System employees have enjoyed for years.

Armed with that kind of hindsight, it is worth listening to the lobbyist who says that NSPS may appear to be dead, and may really be dead, yet it could be another six months before we find out for sure if it will stay dead or reappear in some other form.

Unlikely? Yes. But this has been a very strange (and very good) year for feds and retirees, with lots of surprises. Old ghosts and dead bills managed to get revived. So this one may not be over until, as they say, the last full breath.

About the Author

Mike Causey is a columnist for the Federal Employees News Digest.

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Reader comments

Thu, Feb 4, 2010

I find it interesting that Dee Gardner identifies union workers as slackers. We have no union employees in the DA organization where I work and it's all NSPS. Let me tell you we have a lot of slackers and many are supervisors who went unpunished for failure to rate subordinates on time for the FY2009 performance appraisal. So much for rewarding the performers.

Tue, Jan 5, 2010 Sick of The Whole System NAVFAC

I will be glad to see it go. NSPS was put in place to persecuted employees such as me. Seriously got punished by the System because I went to a supervisor wanting more to do than what I am doing now. Applied for several jobs because the current agency I am employed at didn't want me do more giving me limitations more than anything else. My guess is because the supervisor doesn't want me here any way. I am seeing several offspring being hired under this System? What does the System have to say to that? Is there an agency that wants an employee who wants more out of a job?

Mon, Dec 7, 2009 Art

It is not always pay for performance. When a supervisor has it in for a certain person no matter how hard they work or try, that employee wile lose out in the end. Many DOD Supervisors wanted NSPS so that they could get rid of people faster than the GS System. In other words, the guns were loaded and ready when NSPS came on board. Those same supervisors were also the same individuals that made sure that they did not meet with employees to tell them what they expected and skipped over the year end and then surprised the employees for the annual. Don't say that all people are lazy and that NSPS was the only way to reward people and to make sure that they worked.

Sun, Nov 29, 2009 Joe NAVFAC

As a Navy manager, and a consistantly recognized high performer, I couldn't have been more appalled by NSPS as implemented under NAVFAC. We was given training in which were were told that we were to develop 3-5 objectively rated objectives. Instead we were assigned "3" objectives, each which contained 3-10 actual objectives: mostly highly subjective and at least one actually unattainable. Its a horrid system and I have no doubt that any "pay for performance" system, no matter how dressed up, will rely on the subjective judgement of managers who will assign whatever they choose.

Tue, Nov 17, 2009 Dee Gardner Austin TX

I have been implementing pay for performance systems for over 15 years in the private sector. It has always been great for the employees that worked and for the leaders who knew how to manage it. It was a nightmare for the those who don't want to work. I have seen many articles about NSPS and the comments are the most interesting things. The workers are sad to see it go. The slackers (unidentified union workers) are happy to get back to doing nothing and getting paid. Hopefully they do better with the teachers who are now going into an era of pay for performance.

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