Advisers fuel HR debate

Bush's advisory council recommends more drastic personnel measures for homeland department

The Bush administration did not go far enough when it recommended giving the proposed Homeland Security Department extra flexibility in hiring, retaining and firing department staff, according to President Bush's Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Despite already heated opposition to Bush's proposal in the Senate, the council, which draws its members from the public and private sectors, suggested several ideas in a meeting last week, including that senior executives and managers slated to join the proposed department be required to apply for the new positions they would hold.

Using this tactic, the administration, employees and the public can be sure that the department's leaders are really the best people for the job, not just the people who held certain titles before, said council member Ruth David, president and chief executive officer of Analytical Services Inc.

Measuring the performance of people, as well as systems and programs, is important throughout the department, council members agreed.

The council was especially concerned with the role of middle managers. For example, they proposed evaluating managers on their ability to make their staff members work as a team — and replacing managers if they fail.

"Culture is an asset, but it can never be an excuse," said Norm Augustine, former chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corp., whom the council called in to share ideas on integration. Augustine also served as a member of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a bipartisan group established by Congress that called for a homeland security department in its final February 2001 report. Members acknowledged that many of the flexibilities the council suggested do not easily fit within the government structure. "We're having to invent an entirely new process of integration," said Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, a council member.

But all agreed that past experience merging agencies shows that working by old management rules will cost critical years while trying to bring together all the pieces of the proposed department.

"We do not have the time to repeat those patterns," said council member Lydia Thomas, president and CEO of Mitretek Systems Inc.

Council members said management flexibility was critical to the success of the department. But the concept still faces a fierce debate in Congress.

Although the House passed its version of the Homeland Security Department bill July 26 with the management flexibilities intact, the battle in the Senate, which is still deliberating the bill, is heating up.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter last week to members of Congress highlighting the differences between the president's bill to create the proposed department and the Senate version. Lieberman's committee leads the Senate's work on the bill.

In the letter, he said that the Senate is already giving the administration "all the power it needs to create and run an effective, performance-driven department."

"In my view," Lieberman wrote, "the administration has blurred the focus of its bill and risked dragging this common cause into a quicksand of unnecessary controversy by taking on significant but vague new executive powers that are uncalled for and in some cases unprecedented."

Meanwhile, in a report last week, Bobby Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, maintained that "pretty much what the administration is pleading for already exists." Flexibility, Harnage said, is another word for "gutting the civil service merit system and busting employee unions."

A push for more power

President Bush's Homeland Security Advisory Council highlighted several management flexibilities that its members consider essential to the proposed Homeland Security Department, including the ability to:

* Pick managers based on the new department's structure rather than on employees' old titles and positions.

* Give the department's chief information officer control of every portion of the information technology budget.

* Identify an independent group or person who can observe the management practices of the agency and highlight where and when problems occur.

* Make quick personnel changes when managers are not successful in bringing their groups together into one culture and promote managers who support the department's goals.

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