Defense Department file photo

Pentagon Promises Voluntary Measures for Most Civilian Staff Reductions

Defense will cut more than 1,500 positions at headquarters offices by 2020.

The Defense Department intends to reach its self-inflicted 25 percent cuts to headquarters staff without forcing out many employees, a top Pentagon official said this week.

Instead, the department will rely on relocating employees and attrition measures to cut nearly 1,600 positions. The changes will save Defense $1.9 billion by 2020.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense will shed more than 300 jobs, though about 20 percent of those are already vacant. The rest of the reductions will come from defense agencies and field activities, according to David Tillotson, the Pentagon’s assistant deputy chief management officer. Civilian positions in individual branches or in the commands of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are not affected by the cuts.

Tillotson told Defense Media Activity the “intent” was to make the reductions through attrition, though he said a small percentage -- around 4 percent -- may be forced out involuntarily. The vast majority, he said, will be offered early retirement, separation incentives or placed in other positions.

If employees decline those options, however, they may be forced out, according to Barbara Westgate, the Pentagon’s director of Washington Headquarters Services. She said involuntary separations were a “last resort,” and Defense was encouraging supervisors to work with employees whose positions are slated for the chopping block to review their skillsets and help them find new positions.

Lawmakers have accused the Pentagon of simply shifting civilians from top-level headquarters offices to lower-level offices, undermining the true intent of the initiative to trim the civilian workforce as Defense reduced its military activity. A December Government Accountability Office report found Defense cut its total civilian workforce by 3.3 percent between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, but the reductions did not correspond to savings in personnel costs.

The reductions are a result of an initiative to trim headquarters staff by 25 percent, originally implemented as a department memorandum and later codified in the 2016 defense authorization bill. The civilian employee cuts were originally launched by then-Secretary Chuck Hagel, who required each service to reduce its headquarters spending by 20 percent. Follow-up guidelines written by Secretary Ashton Carter told the components to strive for a 20 percent reduction in civilian staff as part of those savings, which were later increased to 25 percent.

The details on the job cuts follow a hiring freeze at the Defense agencies and activities in March, which Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said would help department offices identify positions for retention, restructuring, reduction or realignment.

The Pentagon is able to phase out employees voluntarily because of the extended timeframe they have to make the reductions, Tillotson said. The resulting savings will go toward modernization and improving readiness and training.