The Politics of Reform
In a hastily arranged briefing for reporters last month, Gordon England, the Navy Secretary charged with setting the Defense Department on a course toward a new civilian personnel system, outlined a design process that will span years and will involve intense collaboration with the Office of Personnel Management and employee unions. The first Pentagon employees won't leave the General Schedule for the National Security Personnel System before the middle of 2005.
But as recently as March, Defense Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness David Chu had told a Senate panel that the Pentagon planned to roll out a new personnel system in the fall.
England never mentioned the initial strategy, and quickly dispensed with discussion about a working paper that Defense had released in February, which outlined its plans for a new labor-relations system. The paper spawned vehement opposition from the Pentagon's unions because it would have restricted their bargaining rights. In response, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., lambasted Chu at the Senate hearing, calling Defense's plan "needlessly confrontational."
The unions reacted with cautious optimism about Defense's plan for a slower, more collaborative approach. But, if personnel reform at the Homeland Security Department is any guide, Pentagon management is likely to have the last laugh.
A year ago, Homeland Security embarked on a lengthy, collaborative process with its unions about its new personnel system. But DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and OPM Director Kay Coles James have the final say. And the unions hate their proposal. It isn't much of a stretch to see Defense now following DHS' lead.
The process will be slower, but the results will probably be the same as at DHS: a personnel system that will toss aside the General Schedule in favor of a pay-for-performance system; a labor relations system that will give the Pentagon broader authority in the name of national security; and a disciplinary system that will allow managers to come down hard and fast.
Process, in the end, is about politics more than substance. Only by calling on congressional allies such as Levin did the unions slow down the Pentagon. But the unions don't have nearly as many advocates when it comes to the substance of the reforms. Levin, after blasting Defense for its my-way-or-the-highway approach to personnel reform, took a moment to praise Homeland Security for its process. He never mentioned the union's objections to DHS' proposal.
After hearing of Defense's plan to slow its personnel process, American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage noted his disappointment that "Secretary England's review did not result in plans for a new personnel system to be scrapped all together."
Clearly, that's not going to happen, and the Pentagon's unions are bound for disappointment.
Taking It Slow
In April, the Defense Department revised its strategy for implementing a National Security Personnel System. It will:
- Work with the Office of Personnel Management on new labor-relations and pay-for-performance systems.
- Work with the Merit Systems Protection Board to create a new disciplinary appeals process.
- Consult with unions at each stage of the process.
- Implement the personnel system with two pilots beginning in July 2005.
- Follow each pilot with an evaluation.
- Bring the number of employees under the new system to 300,000 by 2007, then seek OPM approval to expand the system to the rest of the Defense workforce, as Congress has required.