May 30, 2005
Personnel reforms would end public meritocracy
By J. MICHAEL BROWER
An industry-centric human resources revolution is in full swing at the Defense and Homeland Security departments, indeed throughout the public sector. As a position classifier, I watch with resignation the desperate attempts of labor organizations to get judiciary counteraction. Reading the proposed regulations to establish a National Security Personnel System, I think of Lord Acton's warning: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
These are the most striking elements of the new rules:
• Arbitrary "deference" to executives to set pay, classify personnel, and with "unreviewable discretion" to determine punishments.
• The use of market-based labor rates to regulate public-sector compensation.
• The end of the seniority system (disparaged as "pay-for-longevity").
• The scaling back of bargaining issues for unions.
Public service will become a mafia of at-will employees interested only in pay for performance — obtaining that pay by any means necessary. NSPS will intimidate personnel, erode checks and balances, sack whistleblowers and create a culture of rewarded acquiescence while discouraging loyal opposition and curtailing open discussion of the public's interests.
NSPS uses ignoble means to justify its purportedly noble ends. The system undermines the public trust by eliminating many due process procedures, appointing a biased National Security Labor Relations Board that reports directly to the secretary of Defense, obviating the Merit Systems Protection Board, and creating pay pools that are "market sensitive" — leading to destructive competition with employees slashing their way over fellow public servants to the crest of the pay band. A hybrid of good-old-boy and spoils systems will be created under the NSPS nightmare — jobbery on maximum overdrive.
Today's public-sector supervisors and managers lack the training and internal safeguards to successfully implement this system. The nebulous pay-banding element of the new system, for instance, will give classifiers little guidance beyond a superior's whims to "adapt the department's job and pay structure to meet present and future mission requirements." Caprice, rather than the dictates of Congress pulling its purse strings, will decide employee compensation, for the sake of "mobility" and "flexibility."
The proposed rules hint that employee input hardly means incorporating worker ideas. Careful reading of the proposal's Outreach section indicates that no substantive changes were incorporated from unions or workers. Reducing the time periods for employees to seek redress, constricting what may be collectively bargained, and narrowing the subject of "grievances" is the same line of thought that marked the end of labor-management partnership in early 2001 and the anti-overtime pay proposals that followed. The NSPS process consisted of secret meetings and selective listening.
We should implement the disciplinary and reward system we already have in place — both are underused. Further, gutting the General Service and Wage Grade systems finish off the federal sector's meritocracy. Such a move invites corruption, favoritism and a full plate for the inspector general. NSPS needs to be substantially reworked — this time incorporating the recommendations of workers, not just "soliciting" their comments. "Blindfold? Cigarette? Any last words?" is not good-faith solicitation of meaningful input. Judging from the available employee surveys, many have evaluated the NSPS process as garbage. Throwing out the whole sorry scheme of things and giving workers and their representatives a meaningful chance to influence and change the new personnel system will make the nation safer and improve public service.
J. Michael Brower is a human resource officer and classifier in the Oregon Air Guard and a former Homeland Security Department immigration officer. These views are his own.