Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. said the current system is not creating a “high-performing environment.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. said the current system is not creating a “high-performing environment.” Andrew Harnik/AP

Lawmakers, Officials Agree Being Alive Shouldn’t Be Sole Factor for Defense Promotions

Senators pledge bipartisan legislation reforming the civilian personnel system.

The Defense Department needs more training for employees and better tools to reward top performers, lawmakers and former top Pentagon officials said at a Senate hearing Thursday. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pledged to develop legislation to reform the personnel system.

Senators on the Armed Services Committee called for more accountability of the Pentagon’s civilians, but also said top performers should be rewarded and the entire workforce of nearly 800,000 should receive better training and education opportunities. Former officials said the rigidity of the federal personnel system prevented them from hiring quickly, dealing with poor performers and motivating a new generation of employees to join the department.

“Civilians are taken for granted,” said Dov Zakheim, Defense’s comptroller under President George W. Bush. “The system is so rigid, you move up the scale almost no matter what. If you’re alive, you move up.”

Laura Junor, a principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness in the Obama administration, agreed the current system is disproportionately focused on longevity.

“We’re not even promoting mediocrity,” she said. “We’re promoting sitting in a seat.”

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who chairs the Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Personnel, said Defense should make it easier for employees to build their knowledge and skills. He added highly-qualified candidates would not wait the four-to-six months it takes for the government to hire, and the current system was not creating a “high-performing environment.”

“I hope we can continue the dialogue with myself, the ranking member and our staff as we move forward marking up language for full committee,” Tillis said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the ranking member, decried previous efforts by Congress to use the civilian workforce “as a target for cost cutting.” Those reforms, she said, were “completely divorced from strategic purpose” and hurt morale.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., expressed similar concerns, and agreed on the need for reforms.

“We need compensation structures and opportunities structures that recognize what they’ve done and everything they can be,” Warren said.

Tillis agreed, saying employees who don’t add to their knowledge base do not deserve a raise over cost of living. He also said the department should better recognize and “counsel out” or “divest of” its worst workers.

Junor and other former officials praised Congress for giving Defense temporary direct-hire authority for post-secondary students and recent graduates in the department’s latest authorization bill and called on lawmakers to make it permanent. The authority allows the department to make offers directly at job fairs, they said, making it more competitive with the private sector.

“Get them in and retain them and attract them and get them hooked on our mission,” Junor said, “which is actually a pretty cool way to spend your career.”

Peter Levine, a deputy chief management officer under Obama, noted the Pentagon’s employees ranged from truck drivers to foreign policy setters and cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach to reform. He echoed Junor in saying Defense must enable young employees to express their creativity.

“You don’t want to plug them in so they’re another widget in the system,” he said.