Pentagon tries to break from past on pay, personnel reform

True collaboration among stakeholders will be crucial to ensuring future Defense Department personnel systems avoid the flaws that led to the downfall of the National Security Personnel System, agency and labor witnesses told a Senate panel on Wednesday.

John James, director of the NSPS Transition Office, said the department is on track to move 75 percent of NSPS employees out of the system during fiscal 2010, and noted he is turning some of his attention to fulfilling congressional mandates that Defense establish a new performance management system and hiring process.

Developing and implementing new systems will require the "full engagement" of management, the workforce, unions and other stakeholders, such as the Office of Personnel Management, James said.

Discussions for NSPS successor systems are well under way; James has hired staff and assembled representatives from component agencies and services to research potential options, and he has established a Senior Advisory Group to compile management views and a list of agency needs. He assured the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia the department is fully committed to ensuring unions are involved in the design and implementation of any new personnel authorities.

"We have a strong desire to build an effective relationship and fully participative process with labor organizations in developing these new authorities," James said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said such discussions are crucial.

"I believe that NSPS was ultimately unsuccessful, because DoD did not adequately seek employee input or share information with stakeholders," Akaka said. "The success of any large-scale, agencywide change depends largely on acceptance and understanding by employees and supervisors. We must all keep this in mind as we consider significant performance management changes for both DoD and throughout the federal government."

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, was openly pessimistic about the ability of various groups -- particularly labor groups -- to work together to establish new processes. According to Voinonvich, the NSPS Transition Office extended invitations to 81 stakeholders in early March for a conference to be held in mid-April, but certain groups objected to the short notice and some of the agenda items, and the conference was canceled.

"If the Department of Defense cannot assemble a discussion group on possible uses for these new personnel flexibilities, I hold out little hope that the department will receive the level of constructive dialogue and cooperation necessary to craft a reasonable system for submission to Congress by the October deadline," Voinovich said.

He said the goal of legislative provisions encouraging the department to develop new flexibilities was to retain some of the positive features of NSPS despite its repeal.

"I am not optimistic that this intended capture will occur, because already we see past patterns being repeated," Voinovich said.

In testimony submitted to the subcommittee, American Federation of Government Employees National President John Gage said AFGE representatives and unions from the United Defense Workers Coalition had met with James. Gage called that meeting "frank and candid." He said the unions outlined their experiences with NSPS and their concerns with repeating it. The groups have scheduled a follow-up "idea-generating conference."

"We are cautiously optimistic that we are on a path that has the potential to lead us into a better process and better product than was ever a possibility under NSPS," Gage wrote in his testimony.

American Federation of Government Employees Local 1148 President Patricia Viers told the subcommittee the union is committed to ensuring employees are engaged in the development of any new systems.

"As long as the employees know they have a voice in designing the system, which they will, we will get that message out to them," Viers said. "It's their input that we're bringing to the table to DoD so they have ownership, and if they have ownership in a system -- specifically a performance management system -- it's a positive thing."

Gregory Junemann, national president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, said the union has received assurances from the administration, particularly OPM Director John Berry, that labor will be an equal partner in any attempt to develop a new performance management system that would affect federal workers.

"I'm glad to see you are at least cautiously optimistic that labor organizations and DoD can work together to create a more effective performance management system than under NSPS," Akaka said. "I hope labor and management will be able to work together to accomplish this approach."

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