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Defense Chief Says Treatment of Civilians Is ‘Appalling’

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Defense Secretary Ash Carter Defense Secretary Ash Carter Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Defense Department’s civilian personnel system is so broken it’s a wonder anyone sticks around to work there, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference just outside Washington, Carter promoted the department’s Force of the Future initiative, which he said would bring long overdue change for its 800,000 civilian employees. A proposal in the plan to move most of those workers out of the civil service system that governs most of the federal workforce has come under fire. But Carter said it represents just one option he is considering.

“We're thinking many ideas through, and we need time to get the best ideas and advice, especially from the armed services,” Carter said. “The people of the U.S. armed forces are the best and always will be the best, and how we manage them should be too.”

He noted the military has a “fantastic system” to manage its people. The civilian system, he said, is another story.

“I can't really claim we have a good system for managing civilians,” Carter said. “I actually think it's appalling and we don't treat them very well. And I sometimes ask myself why do they stick with us.”

He quickly answered his own question: “But I know why they stick with us . . . and this is why we have the finest people in service as well . . . because of the mission.”

Going forward, Carter added, the Pentagon should not rely on their commitment to mission alone to make the department an attractive place to work.

"They want to make a difference. They want to keep the country safe and they want to leave better future for our children, and they put up with all the crap we deal because they're committed to that mission. And that is very admirable," he said. "But you know, I don't think we should take that for granted. So I think we do need to think about what kinds of things the next generation of people will find attractive in service, try to provide that in a way that in whatever ways are consistent with the profession of arms."

Brad Carson, acting Defense personnel and readiness chief, has said he hopes whatever specific reforms are chosen will be implemented by the end of the Obama administration. 

Eric Katz writes about federal agency operations and management. His deep coverage of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Postal Service has earned him frequent guest spots on national radio and television news programs. Eric joined Government Executive in the summer of 2012 and previously worked for The Financial Times. He is a graduate of The George Washington University.

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