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Outgoing intelligence HR chief says pay-for-performance can work

Personnel reform has a better chance if stakeholders are given a seat at the table, Sanders says.

The outgoing head of human resources for the intelligence community said on Thursday that despite pay-for-performance setbacks during his more than 30-year tenure in government, he believes such a system can succeed.

Ron Sanders, who will step down from his post as chief human capital officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at the end of January, said the intelligence community's efforts to forge a common pay system showed reform was possible on a large scale.

"It's going to be hard, but it's one of the things that I think was a real accomplishment that we achieved here in the intelligence community," Sanders said during a conference call on Thursday morning to formally announce his retirement. "We were a microcosm of that federal government. We still had to forge a consensus among 17 agencies, as well as [the Office of Management and Budget] and [the Office of Personnel Management], but the product is one that we're all very proud of."

Congress in October 2009 suspended the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System and the National Intelligence Civilian Compensation Program pending review. But according to Sanders, who was ODNI's first human capital chief, that assessment is likely to come out in support of the intelligence community's pay-for-performance setups.

"I think the pause is going to be healthy," Sanders said. "I think the review will validate that we've got a great system."

He said critics often confuse the intelligence pay arrangements with the Defense Department's National Security Personnel System, which lawmakers have ordered the Pentagon to abandon completely. Some observers have noted NSPS' rollback could clear a path for the broader personnel reforms in which OPM Director John Berry has shown interest.

Should OPM undertake a governmentwide overhaul, officials must be patient and gather advice from a range of stakeholders, Sanders said. He noted that one of his greatest mistakes as associate director for strategic HR policy at OPM during the Bush administration was failing to give enough parties a seat at the table while forming plans for the Homeland Security Department's personnel system. In part, this oversight was due to a "sense of urgency" during DHS' creation following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said.

Ultimately, the system "foundered," he noted. "That was a painful lesson."

Sanders was optimistic about the Obama administration's chances of enacting successful reforms, if it learns from his mistake. "I think if you get people in a room, we'll find a way," he said.

According to the outgoing HR chief, reforms were necessary in the intelligence community to ensure agencies were well-positioned to attract and manage tech-savvy and competent staff, get agencies' personnel systems in sync and encourage cooperation.

A uniform pay scheme was a piece of that puzzle, but Sanders said he views the joint-duty program as one of his most notable accomplishments at ODNI. The program requires intelligence officials to take assignments at other agencies, in an effort to build leaders with broader knowledge and experience. Sanders also said he is proud of the formation of leadership succession plans, human capital strategic planning, and increased training and education programs.

Sanders said he likely would continue to work in the private sector, or in academia, on issues of personnel reform and multisector workforce management. He added it was difficult leaving ODNI following the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 and the attack on a CIA facility in Afghanistan over the holidays.

"The events over the holidays did give me pause," Sanders said. "They were difficult to deal with, and they do represent a new round of challenges for the intelligence community. Quite simply, I hate to walk away from a fight. But unfortunately, this is going to be a long war, and that's always going to be the case."