Success of civil service overhaul could hinge on rollout of Pentagon plan

GAO says poor execution of National Security Personnel System could doom governmentwide personnel reform efforts.

If the Defense Department's pending personnel system hits bumps in its implementation, that may spell disaster for the Bush administration's plans to reform the civil service, according to a new Government Accountability Report.

In 2003, Congress allowed the Pentagon to reshape its civilian personnel system. Earlier this year, Defense personnel officials proposed replacing the General Schedule system, implementing a performance pay framework, streamlining the employee appeals process and scaling back collective bargaining. The new system would affect more than 700,000 employees.

Pentagon officials, however, did not include employee representatives in the working groups that developed the proposals, auditors found (GAO-05-730). This decision could hinder the department in encouraging employees to embrace the system once it is implemented, according to GAO.

"A successful transformation must provide for meaningful involvement by employees and their representatives to gain their input into and understanding of the changes that will occur," the report stated.

With the Bush administration pushing for a complete overhaul of the civil service, the system under way at Defense could "serve as a model for governmentwide transformation in human capital management," according to GAO. "However, if not properly designed and effectively implemented, it could severely impede progress toward a more performance- and results-based system for the federal government as a whole."

Employee organizations and some lawmakers are keen to see results from NSPS and the Homeland Security Department's personnel system, known as MAX HR, before expanding personnel reforms governmentwide.

GAO recommended that Pentagon officials identify all the stakeholders and their concerns, and then "tailor and customize key messages to be delivered to groups of employees to meet their divergent interests and information needs." The department also should "develop procedures for evaluating NSPS that contain results-oriented performance measures and reporting requirements," the report stated.

In a written response, Defense officials charged that they "took great care to ensure that the materials and messages addressed" the concerns of employees, labor unions, managers and senior officials. However, they also acknowledged that "you can never communicate enough when attempting to implement a major transformation initiative" and agreed to step up their efforts.

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