NASA chief asks lawmakers for more workforce flexibilities

Agency would like to be able to offer permanent employees incentives to switch to temporary status.

The head of NASA is calling on lawmakers to give the agency the flexibility to offer workers financial incentives to move from permanent to temporary civil service positions.

In a March 28 letter, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin asked Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, to consider legislation that would provide the agency with "additional workforce flexibilities" to help in the transition from the 1958 space shuttle era to the new period of exploration.

"NASA's proposed legislation provides . . . flexibilities essential to the successful implementation of our programs in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research," Griffin wrote.

The measure would enable NASA administrators to offer certain permanent employees an incentive, calculated as a percentage of their basic rate of pay, for moving to a temporary appointment. Employees would only be eligible if the agency administrator determined that their positions face future elimination or are no longer required on a permanent basis.

The move comes on the heels of a National Academy of Public Administration report, which found that the space agency must learn to realign its civil service and contractor workforce to meet its new mission.

NAPA found that the agency is experiencing tension between the need to make significant adjustments while also protecting its current workforce. The report said the agency has an opportunity to be at the forefront in proving that agencies can respond effectively to changing requirements.

In an analysis accompanying the proposal, NASA said that, in some cases, downsizing is "the only alternative to NASA retaining elements of its workforce whose skills are no longer needed." The agency needs approval to reshape its workforce as quickly as possible, the analysis stated.

The agency also argued that attrition must be managed in a way that does not demoralize the workforce, create an environment of uncertainty or generate a lack of trust in management. "If attrition is not managed in the right way, NASA's image as an employer of choice will be eroded, resulting in long-term negative impact on the agency's ability to attract and retain the best and the brightest," NASA said in its analysis.

But the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents NASA employees, expressed opposition. The union plans to write to Gordon this week explaining the potential damage the proposal could cause.

"We view this as just yet another attempt by the Bush administration to put forward anti-civil servant legislation, and this one happens to be aimed at the NASA workforce," said Matt Biggs, the union's legislative director.

He said the measure would be a "major disaster for NASA and U.S. taxpayers." It would establish a way to get rid of the agency's civil servants and create a training ground for contractors to fill those jobs, he said. IFPTE fought off a potential 2004 provision that would have allowed NASA to enlist private sector workers under an exchange program without putting them on the federal payrolls.

After the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts, IFPTE blamed a "combination of budget cuts, workforce downsizing and contracting out of key NASA operations" for hurting "the safety of NASA's manned space program." Biggs warned that downsizing NASA's workforce could again endanger the program and safety of astronauts. "We're going to ask Chairman Gordon to basically ignore this legislation and put it where it belongs -- in the circular file," Biggs said.

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