Pentagon Starts Revising Personnel System, With Aim of Shifting Military Jobs to Civil Service

By Stephen Barr

Monday, January 5, 2004; Page B02

The Pentagon has started work on a new personnel system that would change the way the Defense Department hires, pays, promotes, classifies and disciplines its 746,000 civil service employees.

Pentagon officials appear particularly eager to use the system to help them shift up to 320,000 civil service employees into jobs now performed by the military. The armed forces are stretched thin by the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some National Guard and reserve units have been called up for prolonged duty overseas.

Congress approved the creation of a National Security Personnel System as part of a fiscal 2004 defense bill that President Bush signed in November. Defense officials say construction of the system probably will take two years.

The rollout will start with up to 300,000 employees; full implementation will take place after a new performance management system is in place and managers have been trained on how to rate employees.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the National Conference of State Legislatures last month that the legislation "is going to enable us to do a much better job using the civilian workforce and the contracting workforce, rather than using military people for tasks that need not be performed by military people."

He said the department's problems with job assignments can be traced to the civil service system, which he described as "so antiquated that in some instances a manager would have 100 people working for them, and they'd have four, five or six different personnel systems for 100 people. And they couldn't deploy them."

As a result, he said, "anyone with any sense in the Department of Defense who wanted a task done would reach in, grab a person in uniform, knowing they could tell them what to do, have them do it, if they didn't do it, deploy them someplace else, and get on with life."

The new law gives the Pentagon "flexibility in the personnel system now that we believe will make better use of civilian personnel because people won't be driven away from them by virtue of the fact that we didn't manage their system," Rumsfeld said.

"The personnel system for the Defense Department, civilian side, is managed by the Office of Personnel Management, and we manage the military side. And so that's why everyone's gravitated towards people in uniform."

Some congressional aides who have studied defense issues said the Pentagon might be overly optimistic about how many military jobs can be handed off to civilians. A congressional aide said one budget estimate showed that only 90,000 jobs are prime candidates for conversion. Pentagon officials, however, said their estimates, which go back to a 1997 department study, will be proved correct.

But some analysts said the Pentagon's plan to convert military jobs to civilian ones might have a downside and might be ignoring the importance of jobs that can be an escape valve for overstretched soldiers.

"The home-based military jobs are not simply ones that can or must be done by military, but they provide the balance in the system that allows rotation of operating people, whether they be aboard a ship or in an occupied country, to afford them some rest and time with their families between deployments," said James Colvard, a former Defense employee who served as deputy director of OPM in the Reagan administration.

"An all-volunteer service could not meet its recruiting goals without some sensible balance," Colvard said.

"Continuing to treat our military -- either real or perceived -- as pawns to do nothing but war, patrol or occupation, while civilians occupy safe and restful posts, often at higher pay and convenient hours, is not my idea of effective leadership," he said.