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What’s Wrong With the Pentagon’s Civilian Personnel System?

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The nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center doesn’t mince words in a new report about the Defense Department’s antiquated approach to managing troops and civilians:

“If the military personnel system errs on the side of instability and frequent turnover, the civilian personnel system has the opposite problem. Civilian employees may remain in their positions almost indefinitely—typically regardless of their level of performance.”

Ouch.

The report, “Building a F.A.S.T. Force: A Flexible Personnel System for a Modern Military,” focuses mostly on the uniformed side of the equation, but it prescribes a fairly radical cure for what ails the civilian side. For starters, the authors want to take the Office of Personnel Management out of the picture.   

The civilian workforce is sometimes viewed as incidental to military operations, but there are more civilians working for the Pentagon than there are uniformed troops in the Navy and Air Force combined. The 770,000 civil servants who support the services are managed under 66 different personnel systems, according to the report. That’s probably 65 too many, the authors concluded.  

Roughly two-thirds of defense civilians are managed under the General Schedule civil-service personnel system. It’s a rigid, rule-based system designed to prohibit political patronage and favoritism, and to ensure fairness in hiring and promotions. But it stifles high performers and rewards people for longevity rather than performance.  

“It is exceedingly difficult to remove low performers,” the report notes.

So what’s to be done? The co-chairs of the center’s task force on Defense personnel, including former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, have three main recommendations:

Create a separate and unique personnel system for all Defense Department civilian employees. Move all Defense civil servants from Title 5 (under OPM’s authority) to Title 10 (under the Defense Department) “to allow the defense secretary to customize a system to control hiring, management, compensation, and retention policies for the defense-civilian workforce. As part of this reform, any civilian working for a joint command should be managed under the Defense Department’s personnel system, not those of individual services.”

Establish pay bands for all defense civilian employees. The authors recommend creating a simplified job-classification system for professional and administrative positions, “which would condense the GS system into a smaller number of pay bands to more closely align with the knowledge and work that most defense-civilian employees currently perform. These pay bands should be designed to enable employees to progress based on their technical expertise, not just on the number of people they supervise.”

Increase educational opportunities for civil servants. Compared with opportunities available to military personnel, there are very few educational opportunities available for defense civilians.  “In order to reach their full potential, employees must be given opportunities to continue developing their skills and knowledge. This is exactly why substantial investments are made for uniformed career development. But the differences between uniformed and civil-service personnel when it comes to career development are striking.”

Whether the Bipartisan Policy Center's recommendations will be adopted in whole or in part is anybody's guess at this point, but if previous attempts to reform the woefully outdated personnel system are any guide, don't hold your breath. 

Katherine is deputy editor of Government Executive Media Group, a division of Atlantic Media, where she oversees editorial coverage for GovExec.com and Government Executive magazine. She previously was executive editor of Nextgov.

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