Defense pushes for more flexibility to manage civilian employees

A Pentagon official earlier this week asked Congress for more flexibility to hire civilian workers faster and convert military jobs to civilian status when warranted.

"We are working to promote a culture in the Defense Department that rewards unconventional thinking-a climate where people have freedom and flexibility to take risks and try new things," said David Chu, undersecretary for personnel and readiness at the Defense Department, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "Most would agree that to win the global war on terror, our armed forces need to be flexible, light and agile-so they can respond quickly to sudden changes."

The civilian workers who support the military will need similar flexibilities, so that they can shift money to where it is most needed, design and buy weapons, and move people quickly in response to security threats, he said. For example, now it takes the Defense Department an average of three months to hire civilians, making it difficult to snare the best candidates before they receive other job offers.

Recruiting procedures will become increasingly important in the next decade, as a "significant fraction" of the department's civilian staff reaches retirement age, Chu said. In addition, a number of service members working at uniform posts are actually performing civilian duties, and their classification should change accordingly, he said.

To gain its desired flexibilities, Defense needs Congress to change some laws that govern how it hires employees for its approximately 800,000-person civilian workforce. Benefits and the standards workers are held to need to be modified also, Chu said. For example, Defense supports the ideals embodied in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, but the personnel procedures outlined in the act, "many of them legislated, have not kept pace with national security realities," Chu told the lawmakers.

Defense's civilian personnel policies need to be more along the lines of the flexible practices allowed by the legislation that created the Homeland Security Department, Chu said. For example, managers should be able to alter an employee's job responsibilities quickly if the security situation changes, he said. "Innovations and experiments over many years have demonstrated that a more flexible and collaborative system of human resources management, providing greater opportunity for employees and more responsibility for managers, can lead to higher productivity and improved morale that are critical to mission support."

A draft plan for a new civilian personnel system at Defense suggests a more flexible pay system in which workers would not be awarded an automatic, across-the-board annual pay increase, but would be paid according to their performance. Under the proposed plan, the Pentagon would be in charge of civilian Defense personnel, which is currently under the control of the Office of Personnel Management.

The Defense Department has already made significant progress toward transforming civilian personnel practices, Chu told lawmakers. In late September, the department completed the Defense Civilian Personnel Data System, a massive computer network to handle pay, benefits and personnel records for more than 800,000 civilians who work for Defense worldwide.

Also, Defense created and implemented 26 measures to determine if its workforce met performance goals in 2002, developed a set of best practices by looking at successful personnel departments in the private sector and established programs to promote the hiring of a diverse workforce. The department is also working to provide better training programs for its civilian workers by improving the curriculum at its educational institutions and demanding more of its students.

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