NASA urged to align internal, external workforces

NASA must better align its civil service and contractor workforce to accomplish new missions and expand space exploration efforts, according to a new report from the National Academy of Public Administration.

"NASA must continue to find ways to balance its multisector workforce and restructure its existing civil service component to meet its ambitious exploration agenda and timeline," the report stated.

The review, requested last year by the agency and the Senate Appropriations Committee, identified the workforce challenges that NASA could face in moving to the Bush administration's new Vision for Space Exploration program. The new program is aimed at completing the construction of the international space station and an outpost on the moon to help prepare for a mission to Mars.

But because NASA's organizational structure and workforce of about 18,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors nationwide grew up around previous missions, the agency is experiencing tension between the need to make significant adjustments while also protecting its current workforce, the report said.

"With its heavy reliance on a multisector workforce of civil servants and contractors, NASA has an opportunity to be at the forefront of the public sector, proving that federal agencies can respond effectively to changing mission requirements," said Academy Fellow Sallyanne Harper, who chaired the panel overseeing the study.

The report is based on more than 100 interviews at NASA headquarters and eight of the agency's 10 nationwide facilities, as well as with labor union representatives and contractor organizations.

According to a 2006 federal workforce survey released earlier this year by the Office of Personnel Management, NASA already has a strong grasp on human capital management. NASA ranked in the top three agencies in job satisfaction, leadership and workplace performance.

John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said NASA also holds a high spot on the group's 2007 Best Places to Work rankings, which will be released April 19.

Palguta said the fact that NASA is so highly regarded among its own employees is noteworthy, given the agency's widespread use of contractors. "It shows that having a heavy reliance on and a heavy relationship with contractors need not diminish a federal employee's own job satisfaction," he said.

The report includes a proposed "decision guide" to help NASA focus on the most important criteria for determining whether to use civil servants or contractors. If the decision is to hire a civil servant, the guide also provides criteria for assessing the appropriate type of appointment.

"These tools should help NASA set acquisition and workforce priorities in a transparent and strategic manner," the report stated.

The panel recommended Congress provide NASA with a new package of flexibilities, including modified reduction-in-force rules, blanket employee buyout authority with a high dollar-value incentive and limited authority to modify retirement regulations in emergencies.

"When agencies have significantly evolving missions … the government's rigid, rule-bound civil service system does not facilitate or encourage flexibility in the civil workforce," the report said. "Although the nature of an agency's work requirements changes over time, permanent civil servants with tenure are not forced to adapt."

The report concluded that NASA has the ability to "break new ground" for other agencies.

"Today's broader, multisector workforce requires the high-level integration of acquisition and human capital planning, which is long overdue in the federal sector," the report said. "NASA will then be at the forefront of 21st century governance -- pointing the way for other federal agencies facing similar challenges."

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