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OPM official touts governmentwide civil service reform

Marta Brito Perez says decades of personnel demonstration projects have provided enough information to move forward.

A top Office of Personnel Management official on Wednesday reiterated the Bush administration's commitment to push for governmentwide changes in civil service rules.

During a morning seminar sponsored by Government Executive, Marta Brito Perez, OPM associate director for human capital leadership and merit system accountability, dismissed arguments that the administration should wait to see how civil service reform at the Defense and Homeland Security departments works before pushing ahead.

"This is absolutely not new," Perez said, noting that Defense has conducted personnel demonstration projects for the past 25 years. "I don't think we need to wait. I think the time is right."

In its fiscal 2006 budget proposal, the Bush administration said it would seek legislation to extend reforms similar to those now being put in place at Defense and Homeland Security to the rest of the executive branch. The plan was immediately met with skepticism on Capitol Hill, even among important Republicans, such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the Government Reform Committee.

Employee unions, which have fought the Homeland Security and Defense changes, blasted plans to go governmentwide. And the administration, so far, has not sent proposed legislation to Capitol Hill.

In 2002 and 2003, Homeland Security and Defense won authority from Congress to revamp civil service rules. Later this year, they plan to begin rolling out systems that will replace the 15-grade, 10-step General Schedule pay and classification system with wider pay bands. Employees will receive raises based on performance evaluations conducted by their supervisors. The scope of labor bargaining will also be restricted and employee disciplinary rules will be tightened.

At the seminar, both Ronald James, Homeland Security chief human capital officer, and Charles S. Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, defended the systems they are creating, but noted the need to follow through with sufficient training for managers.

Defense expects that its new rules, part of its National Security Personnel System, will provide a "lead for the rest of government to follow," Abell said, adding he hoped other agencies would "take the best parts of NSPS and get a better deal than we got" from Congress.

Abell took issue with the argument that employees are upset with the changes. "I don't think the [harsh] rhetoric [of union officials] at the national level matches the feeling at the local level, even among union stewards," he said.

But James said labor relations changes, which eliminate management's obligation to bargain over work procedures and the use of technology, amount to a "big sea change" in labor relations. He said managers would be wise to keep employees in the loop and to make reasonable accommodations for workers. We've "got a lot of heavy lifting to do," he said.

Claudia Cross, the chief human capital officer at the Energy Department, was the only panelist to express reservations about the plan to go governmentwide with civil service reform. Cross argued that many of the problems with the current system are not inherent, but stem from inadequate management training. "Before we go in and say it's all broken… we need to [focus training on] the softer side: managing human beings," she said.