Rumsfeld: Defense needs personnel reform to manage better

The Defense Department needs a new, more cohesive personnel system to effectively manage civilian employees, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Senate lawmakers Wednesday.

"We have complaints from managers that they have to manage over several different personnel systems," Rumsfeld told members of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee during a hearing called to examine a proposal to create a new personnel system for more than 700,000 civilian Pentagon employees.

The Defense proposal calls for scrapping the General Schedule pay system and adopting a pay-banding system that would more closely tie pay to performance. Pentagon officials would be given authority to more easily hire and fire employees, rehire retirees without affecting their government pensions, modify job classifications and change reduction-in-force procedures. More than 300,000 military jobs would shift to civilian positions and the Defense secretary would get considerable leeway to craft collective bargaining relationships at the department.

Pentagon officials argue that they need these flexibilities because the current system is too fragmented and bogged down in bureaucracy to be either efficient or effective. "We need to deal with the new threats with a system that is fashioned for the information age," Rumsfeld said.

Pentagon officials sent the civil service reform plan to Congress in April and the House included a slightly modified version of the proposal in its fiscal 2004 Defense authorization bill approved in May. The Senate disagreed with the breadth of authorities sought by Rumsfeld and other Defense officials, and declined to include the provisions in its authorization bill. On Tuesday, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John Sununu, R-N.H., introduced the "National Security Personnel System Act" (S.1166) which extends some flexibilities to Pentagon officials, but stops short of granting the wide-ranging authorities requested.

"I am concerned that some of the provisions in the current proposal go too far; for example, the proposed removal of oversight authority and jurisdiction of the Office of Personnel Management and the Merit Systems Protection Board," said Voinovich, who stressed that he strongly supported giving Pentagon officials some flexibilities to better shape its workforce.

Rumsfeld and David Chu, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, defended the proposal, contending that much of what it called for was given to the Homeland Security Department. They also pointed to 20 years worth of personnel demonstration projects as evidence that what they were requesting could work at the department.

"This didn't just fall out of thin air," Rumsfeld explained. "These pilot programs, which now involve over 30,000 [Defense] employees, tested many of the reforms that we are requesting, including pay-banding systems, simplified classifications, pay for performance, recruiting and staffing reforms, scholastic achievement appointments and enhanced training and development programs."

However, many committee members continued to quiz Rumsfeld about parts of the proposal that called for waiving the portions of Title 5 that deal with collective bargaining rights, due process and appeal rights.

"Approving the [Defense] proposal and the House plan would give a license to conduct surgical strikes on the civilian workforce, and it is inappropriate to request such authorities without specific guidelines," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

But Rumsfeld insisted that the proposal would retain sufficient protections for employees, including whistleblower rights, access to the equal employment complaint process and veterans' preference rules.

"We simply are asking that Congress extend the same kinds of flexibility it gives us in managing the men and women in uniform to the management of civilians who support the U.S. military," Rumsfeld said.

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