Federal Diary

Pentagon Wants To Hear From All Corners About New Pay System

By Stephen Barr

In the next few weeks, Pentagon officials hope to set up a process that will reach out to Defense Department managers, employees, unions and others for advice and ideas on how to design a new civilian pay and personnel system.

Navy Secretary Gordon England, recently asked by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to oversee the launch of the National Security Personnel System, said planners are drafting a recommendation that soon will be taken to Rumsfeld for approval.

"We have six teams working now . . . to define the process that we will follow to be sure that we have the right NSPS system for our 700,000 employees and to make sure that system meets our national security objectives but also treats our employees fairly and recognizes that everybody in this department needs to be treated with dignity and respect," England said.

He said employees will be kept in the loop -- a daunting challenge for a department that operates globally -- and provided with information that lets them track the system's development.

Employees should not fear that they will wake up one morning and suddenly learn they are working under new pay, disciplinary and workplace rules, England said, in one of several comments that signaled the Pentagon will not rush decisions on the NSPS.

England previewed the Pentagon's approach to the NSPS in an interview that included Kay Coles James, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, and David S.C. Chu, defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness.

Congress last year approved the creation of the NSPS to help the Defense Department reshape its civilian workforce for the war against terrorism and other 21st-century challenges. Congress hopes the system will allow the Pentagon to become more competitive in hiring and able to better reward its best workers.

After the law's approval, Pentagon officials indicated they would emphasize job performance as a factor in pay decisions, speed up disciplinary procedures and revamp how the department negotiates with unions.

The sweeping nature of the proposed changes, coupled with a rocky initial meeting with labor leaders, created the perception that the Pentagon planned to swiftly implement the new system. Officials had said the initial phase could roll out as soon as October.

But England, a former aircraft industry executive, said Defense would take a methodical and collaborative approach to building the new personnel system -- much as it does to building aircraft carriers. There is no timetable for the NSPS and it is no longer a given that the Navy is going first, as originally forecast, he said. Part of the NSPS development may begin with a "test phase" designed to "get enough feedback that will be useful," England said.

James said OPM, which helped the Department of Homeland Security draw up the framework for its new personnel system, will partner with the Pentagon in developing a process for designing the NSPS.

The focus on creating an inclusive process should prove reassuring to civil service employees at Defense, because it means workers, union representatives and congressional aides will have more time to make suggestions and voice any concerns.

More than likely, England said, he will recommend that the Pentagon set up a program office to manage the process, and quipped that it could be in business for a number of years.

"The soft stuff is the hard stuff. When you're dealing with personnel systems and motivating employees, that is the hard part," England said, adding, "We want to make sure that we do this right."