DoD Targets Buyouts, Benefits

DoD Targets Buyouts, Benefits

The Defense Department will seek permanent buyout authority, along with changes to employee benefit packages, in the first stage of the effort to overhaul DoD's civilian personnel system.

Five working groups at the Pentagon, made up of human resource specialists from DoD, union representatives and experts from the Office of Personnel Management, have spent recent months hashing out a new civilian personnel system for the Defense Department. Last week, union and department representatives agreed to hold off on making major changes to pay, classification and performance management systems.

However, the negotiators agreed to seek legislative approval for a number of initiatives sure to brighten the days of Defense civilians. First, DoD would seek permanent buyout authority for the department, said Jeff Sumberg, director of field services at the American Federation of Government Employees.

Diane Disney, deputy assistant secretary for civilian personnel policy, would not go into details on any forthcoming legislative proposal, but said legislation would be drafted this spring. Congress has reauthorized authority for buyouts of up to $25,000 several times, but the Pentagon would like permanent authority.

DoD would also seek to allow civilians to contribute to the Thrift Savings Plan up to the annual IRS limit, which is $10,000 this year. Contributions currently are capped at 10 percent of pay for people enrolled in the Federal Employees Retirement System and 5 percent for those in the Civil Service Retirement System. The reformers would also eliminate the waiting period for new hires to enter the TSP.

The Pentagon is also looking at ways to remedy the early retirement penalty, which reduces the pensions of people who leave the government before their full service requirements are completed. In addition, DoD is considering improving the benefits of civilians deployed in combat zones, increasing education subsidies for workers and paying for certain certifications required of some civilian employees.

Broader reform proposals, potentially including pay banding and new performance management models, were originally scheduled to be completed by this month. But the unions and the Pentagon have to iron out several issues, including the role of collective bargaining in any future personnel systems. A broad reform proposal won't come until next year, Sumberg said.

"There's a remarkable level of agreement on concepts, but we have to get more agreement on specifics," Disney said. "This is not an easy process. There is also a building of trust. There really isn't a model for this."

The Pentagon and the unions apparently agree that managers should have more authority over their employees, but haven't determined how much more yet.

"Turning more authority over to managers without any of the checks and balances that come from strong unions with full collective bargaining rights is exactly the wrong approach to reform," AFGE President Bobby Harnage wrote in a letter last week to Frank Rush, acting assistant secretary of defense for force management policy. "Does the Department of Defense want to perpetuate the same tired, top-down, 'management-knows-best' models of the past, or does it truly want to embrace the kind of workplace partnerships that are leading successful organizations into the 21st century?"

Harnage also praised the department for working with AFGE on reform.

Disney said reducing costs is a side benefit of revamping the personnel system, but not the main purpose.

"We want a personnel system that is easier to understand, easier to use, and beneficial to both the employer and the employee. We're not setting out expressly to reduce cost," Disney said. "If you improve the system and make it easier to understand and easier to use, then it's almost inevitable that its going to cost less to run."

Disney added that DoD's personnel reform efforts are being coordinated with governmentwide changes under consideration at OPM.

"These are wonderfully parallel efforts," Disney said.

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