Workforce Whisperer

Ronald Sanders pushes open the door to a new civil service.

If the Defense and Homeland Security departments are successful in rolling out new personnel systems later this year, then no one will deserve more credit-or blame-than Ronald Sanders.

Sanders, 54, isn't a household name or a major public figure, but in government human resources circles he's a legend, and his legacy is only getting larger. As the Office of Personnel Management's associate director for strategic human resources policy, Sanders collaborated with the Pentagon and DHS at nearly every stage of their design processes. He spent the past two years hashing out details, writing regulations, meeting with union leaders and briefing reporters. The systems he helped create will pay employees based on performance evaluations, reduce union power and allow stricter discipline. They are the most significant changes to civil service rules in at least a generation.

"I wanted the absolute best," says Kay Coles James, the former OPM director who brought Sanders on board. "And my charge to Ron was, 'Let's get the maximum amount of flexibility for the managers that we can.' Whenever we reached an impasse, Ron was creative enough to come up with solutions." James is now senior executive vice president for national security transformation at MZM Inc., a Washington-based consulting firm.

At a minimum, the rules Sanders helped draft will affect 750,000 civilian employees. But many expect, and Sanders hopes, that his design will lay the groundwork for a complete civil service overhaul that will boost performance, help agencies meet mission goals and attract talented people to federal service.

The current rules often do the opposite, according to Sanders. "The system can discourage people and eventually just beat people down so that they don't perform," he says.

Sanders wasn't one of those people. He remembers how he was told that it would be impossible to make the Senior Executive Service before age 40, but he managed to do it at 39. Before coming to OPM in 2002, Sanders developed one of government's first pay-for-performance systems at the Internal Revenue Service. During the 1990s, he managed the post-Cold War drawdown of civilian staff at Defense, reducing the workforce by 230,000 people, mostly through attrition and buyouts. And just as he finishes remaking the civil service comes news that he will soon begin his next big challenge: hiring staff for John Negroponte, the new director of national intelligence. He will be Negroponte's chief human capital officer.

A serious and intense man whose daily lunch consists of a Diet Coke and two Excedrin Extra Strength tablets, Sanders might know more about federal personnel systems than anyone on the planet. Just as important, the amateur weight lifter has a very thick skin.

He has needed it to battle federal employee unions, which have blasted his efforts at Defense and Homeland Security, arguing that his design will give too much power to managers. He's also had to grapple with Defense Department leaders who initially were reluctant to allow OPM a hand in its new system. Sanders worked closely with George Nesterczuk, a senior adviser at OPM. James hired Nesterczuk, former staff director at the House Government Reform Civil Service Subcommittee, to lean on Defense management.

Mary Lacey, the program executive officer for Defense, says Sanders has been "the perfect guy for this job. He's incredibly creative, very high energy. And he also has broad governmentwide experience and knowledge, which has been invaluable."

If the design of the Defense and DHS systems is inhumane, as union leaders allege, it wasn't intentional. Sanders is careful not to denigrate his union critics. He simply disagrees on some fundamental principles.

In Sanders' view, pay for performance will help agencies keep top workers and recruit new ones. Unions see it as a way managers can reward their friends. Strict discipline and limited collective bargaining are necessary to ensure that the departments are nimble in performing their security missions, he says. The unions see the changes as part of a broader strategy to lower salaries and contract out more jobs.

Sanders says he has spent a career trying to improve opportunities for government employees. After college, his first job was as an investigator at the National Labor Relations Board in Memphis, Tenn. He "saw some of the most unbelievable working conditions you can imagine," he says. He became frustrated, unable to put an end to the things he saw. Then he went to work at the Defense Department, negotiating Air Force labor agreements. There, he had a direct impact on workers' quality of life.

Civil service-which has rewarded employees for longevity more than performance-is something Sanders has wanted to change for decades. "One of those things that's always bothered me is the notion that if you are a public employee, you aren't a top performer. Part of that stereotype is brought on by the system," he says. "It was always frustrating for me as a young person entering government to be told, 'Wait your turn.' "

The overhaul he's helped plan is radical. DHS and Homeland Security can "literally replace laws with regulations," he says. No longer will they have to justify their actions on pay, discipline or labor relations to Congress or to OPM.

And Sanders is keenly aware of the impact such authority could have on the rest of government. As OPM's advocate in the negotiating room, he's kept the governmentwide interest in the back of his mind. He and Nesterczuk led the charge last year when Defense officials tried to begin writing regulations without OPM involvement.

James whipped off a tough letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Then, Sanders says, "DoD did a 180. . . . They heard from OPM. They heard from the Hill. They had a fairly disastrous meeting with the unions. . . . And to their credit, the senior leadership of the department took a deep breath and said, 'Wait a minute, we may be going down the wrong path here.' "

But that doesn't mean he agrees with those who want a governmentwide overhaul rather than a piecemeal approach. Experience tells him that's an impossible task. "I was involved in earlier stages of my life in no less than three attempts to modernize the civil service in one big bang, and they all failed," Sanders says.

Instead, he would like to see Congress grant all agencies the ability to design their own systems, while maintaining certain core principles: merit-based hiring and promotion, veterans preference, and whistleblower and discrimination protections. He hopes the designs of the Defense and DHS systems will provide other agencies with some good ideas to incorporate or modify for their own use.

"This is not a unitary government," he says. "The cultures and missions are all over the place. What's good for one department may not be good for another."