Rewarding good work

Congress acts on bills to give NASA, GAO management flexibility

Hoping to improve the government's track record in recruiting and retaining the best employees, Congress is pushing two bills through the legislative process that would change how NASA and the General Accounting Office manage their workforces.

The NASA Workforce Flexibility Act

and the GAO Human Capital Reform

Act of 2003, both introduced by Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), passed

the Senate last November. The House passed the space agency legislation Jan. 28 and sent it to President Bush for final

approval.

The bills, which are expected to become laws, would simplify rewarding high achievers and luring talent from private industry, officials say. They aim to supplant the notion that getting a government job means nursing a bureaucratic headache. If successful, they could serve as models for governmentwide management reform.

The NASA bill would help attract and retain the best scientists in specialized government jobs. The GAO bill would make the agency a model for rewarding workers for talent and performance, not seniority.

"They're both smart pieces of legislation that are a step in the right direction," said Max Stier, president and chief

executive officer of the Partnership for

Public Service, a nonprofit group focused on revitalizing the federal civil service. "These are agencies that have done a very good job looking at their workforce needs strategically."

But critics worry that workers will lose in the end, as civil service rights are sacrificed for flexibility.

"I believe that there's a pretty good chance that employees will be harmed

in this current wave of reforms," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 155,000 workers in 24 agencies.

The bills come at a critical time, experts say, as government officials look to stave off a brain drain of senior information technology workers. The Bush administration has highlighted the issue as part of the President's Management Agenda.

At NASA, 15 percent of the workforce is eligible for retirement, and 25 percent will be eligible in five years. Scientists and engineers older than 60 outnumber those who are younger than 30 by nearly 3 to 1.

The legislation aims to defuse the crisis by hiring the best recruits and retaining the best performers.

The GAO bill, meanwhile, would instill a performance-based system for pay raises for most federal government workers, in place of automatic annual increases.

"What we want to be able to do is

say, 'Increases will be based on performance,'" GAO Comptroller General David Walker testified at a September 2003 hearing. "We're trying to lead by example, to show you can modernize the workforce while protecting the integrity of the

civil service and preventing abuse of federal employees."

With workforce flexibility gaining prevalence, NASA and GAO seem to be on the cusp of a trend.

"This is an important issue not just for NASA and GAO but for the entire federal government," Stier said. "They offer important models for other agencies to look at and, in some cases, emulate."

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

***

Bonuses and benefits

The NASA Workforce Flexibility Act of 2003, which passed the Senate Nov. 24, 2003, and the House Jan. 28, would give NASA's administrator new personnel authorities. The administrator would be able to:

Pay travel, transportation and relocation expenses for recent hires.

Extend term appointments.

Fix basic rates of pay for critical-need, senior-level positions.

Arrange for the assignment of NASA scientific or technical employees to private-sector organizations and vice versa.

Appoint distinguished scholars as employees.

Award bonuses.

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