Mary Lacey: Agent of change

Working to bring DOD's civilian pay system into the 21st century

Mary Lacey may have one of the hardest jobs at the Pentagon these days. As program executive officer for the Defense Department's new National Security Personnel System (NSPS), she is in the unenviable position of needing to keep workers and superiors happy as she redesigns the way DOD civilian employees are hired, paid and promoted.

DOD officials must streamline the hiring process, Lacey said, because young professionals don't want to wait three to six months for a DOD job in an era in which the commercial sector hires in a matter of days. She added that new employees want to work in a system that rewards performance rather than longevity.

Lacey said that if Pentagon officials want to stay competitive with private employers and retain capable employees, they must offer salaries that match commercial-sector pay scales.

Proposed NSPS rules address those salary issues by recommending a pay-for-performance system and pay banding. The new rules would also give DOD managers and supervisors a wide range of discretionary powers, which employee unions say would abrogate workers' rights.

Lacey said workers don't need to worry about losing rights because the personnel system she envisions would build a more open workplace in which all supervisors are coaches.

The experiences of Lacey's 32-year DOD career resonate in her vision for NSPS. She started as a high school intern at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak, Md., in the 1970s. Discussing the reforms planned under NSPS, she talks almost wistfully about what the new system could do to encourage the kind of kid she once was to pursue a career with DOD.

Lacey's career took her to the top of the Senior Executive Service when she served as technical director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center before accepting the NSPS job. She had supervisors who served as coaches and became mentors, a role she has now taken on with enthusiasm.

Lacey said the best supervisors and leaders are those "who spend time on people matters," and she follows their example. She said Adm. Vern Clark, the departing chief of naval operations, is an example of a leader who puts people first.

It's not surprising Lacey cited Clark as an example to follow — she has the Navy in her blood. She is one of five daughters of Charlie Donley, a former chief of the Navy Supply Corps. Until her current job, she had spent her federal career in the Navy laboratory system.

Lacey said she is also inspired by retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, who, until last month, ran DOD's Office of Force Transformation in the same building in Rosslyn, Va., that houses the NSPS offices.

Navy Secretary Gordon England said he viewed Lacey's laboratory career as the ideal launching pad for her NSPS job because she also ran a pilot pay-for-performance program that covered about 26,000 employees.

Lacey said her engineering and scientific background gives her valuable insight into how to reform DOD's human resources system. She said her experience with complex mechanical systems will serve her well during the development and deployment of NSPS.

"The personnel system is very complex," Lacey said, "and I have engineered very complex systems" in Navy labs.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who represents a large pool of DOD civilian workers in suburban Maryland, said Lacey has impressive leadership abilities. He has no doubt that she "will be able to use her substantial experience and valuable insight" in developing NSPS, he said.

Although union leaders have blasted DOD officials for not collaborating with employees on the new system, Lacey said she has consulted with employees throughout the process. "While change is hard, a lot of people [in DOD] are very excited" about NSPS, she said.

With NSPS under attack by unions and with many of DOD's 650,000 civilian workers worried about its implications, Lacey runs the risk of becoming isolated from the people she has worked with under a system she is now charged with taking apart.

But following her own direction is nothing new to a woman who decided to major in mechanical engineering in the 1970s. She was the only female mechanical engineer in her class when she graduated from the University of Maryland in 1978. She was also in the minority when she did graduate work in control systems and explosives. Then and now, Lacey said, she turns to friends and mentors for support, including a handful of women in the Senior Executive Service.

Lacey said she has a clear idea of what she doesn't know. To help with the development of NSPS, she has surrounded herself with people who have the knowledge, skills and capabilities she lacks.

NSPS is the focal point of Lacey's life right now. She said she wants to ensure that DOD has the best human resources system and that prospective employees put DOD at the top of their list, not at the bottom.

The Mary Lacey file

Title: Program executive officer for the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System.

Career: Lacey started her DOD career by interning at the White Oak, Md., Naval Ordnance Laboratory while still in high school. She spent much of her career designing explosives and served as technical director of the Naval Surface Warfare Center before accepting her current position.

Education: She was the only woman in the University of Maryland's class of 1978 who majored in mechanical engineering.

Family: She is married to her high school sweetheart, Joe. They have two daughters, Ann and Meg.

Age: 50.

Hobbies: Lacey's musical tastes run the gamut from classical to Tina Turner and Harry Connick Jr. She enjoys reading mysteries by Patricia Cornwall that have a scientific bent.

NEXT STORY: Welles: Telework blahs

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