August 06, 2004
It doesn't take a degree in astrophysics to reform the civil service — unless you're George Nesterczuk.
Nesterczuk is a former NASA contractor who held top scientific policy posts at the White House and Transportation Department. In February, he joined the Office of Personnel Management to represent the agency's interests in the development of a new personnel system for 746,000 civilian employees at the Defense Department.
Despite his science background, Nesterczuk has spent more than 20 years dealing with federal human resources issues. During the Reagan administration, he was at OPM managing the Senior Executive Service and governmentwide pay and performance management systems. In the 1990s, Nesterczuk served as staff director for the House Government Reform subcommittee on civil service. He also heads his own management consulting firm in Northern Virginia — a job he's eager to return to once his stint at OPM is done.
In a recent interview, Nesterczuk updated Federal Times on the status of efforts to launch the National Security Personnel System, which will replace longstanding civil service rules at Defense, and offered his views on the current state of the civil service. Edited experts follow:
Q: How are things going with the development of the National Security Personnel System?
Nesterczuk: I think we've made a lot of progress in the past few months. As far as the general outreach, I would say that the environment today is much more positive than it was three months ago. As far as the constituencies, the unions in particular that had been left out, we've managed to rebuild some trust there. They still have a lot of questions about where this is going to go, but quite honestly the process now is only in its nascent stages.
Q: It's a huge undertaking. Talking with 41 unions and trying to get agreement on any one issue has to be very difficult.
Nesterczuk: We're not really looking at developing consensus here. We'll get them involved in some of our thinking and some of the options we're developing. They're going to get some upfront input. Subsequently there'll be much more intense collaboration, once the regulations are actually prepared and published. Then there's a statutory process for meeting and conferring with the unions.
But at this stage, consensus isn't anything that's relevant. It's more information sharing and getting input from them and them letting us know what are their hot buttons and hot issues. To the extent we can steer away from some of their bigger concerns, it'll be mutually helpful.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in getting this up and running?
Nesterczuk: There are challenges in every phase. Initially, it's the identification of what's not working in the system and coming up with reasonable solutions or alternatives.
Q: Do you think some of the concerns the unions have brought forward are valid?
Nesterczuk: The initial discussions have been heavily colored by DoD's initial labor relations concept. Some of that had been prepared for purposes of stimulating discussions and debate, but some of those ideas were somewhat draconian. So instead of generating discussion and debate, they engendered tremendous opposition. Whatever the intent was, it was an overreach and certainly conveyed the perception to the unions that DoD was interested in . . . decertifying them or putting some of them out of business. I truly don't think that was the intention. But the perception was out there. So we've had to undo that perception to get the unions to come back in and begin to talk in a constructive kind of way.
Q: A lot of similar discussions and town hall meetings took place during the development of the Homeland Security Department proposals, but the unions charge that at the end of day it was lip service and the administration decided to do what it always intended to do. Is there some validity to that?
Nesterczuk: Taking DHS for an example, there's some degree of posturing on the positions that the unions are taking vis-à-vis the regulations. What they're not admitting to are the host of issues that were taken off the table, changes not made, accommodations made that are now beyond the scope of the regulations, and there was a lot of that. The debate is now what's in the regulations and what's left in the regulations that's still not acceptable to the unions. They won a lot of arguments. Because those issues aren't in the regulations, no one gets credit for having made the concession. That's not quite right.
Q: What are the factors OPM has to see in any system DoD develops?
Nesterczuk: There are some core principles, merit systems principles, that people need to subscribe to, and we'll make sure those are protected. Veterans preference is another one that we're very concerned about. DoD has provisions in NSPS that DHS doesn't have and that's in the hiring area — staffing, recruitment, hiring — and on that intake stream is where veterans preference plays a key role, so you want to make sure that's not compromised.
Q: What about other agencies, or the larger picture of civil service reform in general? How much of that plays into those day-to-day discussions?
Nesterczuk: In terms of day-to-day discussions, it's not on the table. But the recognition that at the end of the process the impact governmentwide will be significant, we as well as DoD staff are well aware of it. One of the strategic elements in the design phase of NSPS we are considering is keeping some flexibilities in the department. The department is big; it has different pieces that do different jobs, so they need some flexibility so we don't establish NSPS as a one-size-fits-all in all elements across the department. That will be particularly true in the pay area.
Q: How different will the DHS and DoD systems look? Both models are going to be looked at with an eye toward civil service reform.
Nesterczuk: There's a limited universe of solutions, so there'll be some similarities there. Where you'll see obvious differences are places where the statue differs — for example the hiring, recruitment, staffing provisions that DoD has . . . that DHS did not get. So there'll be some ground breaking there from a governmentwide standpoint, some things we'll be able to try out there that we cannot do at DHS. In the labor-relations area . . . there are provisions — for example, national-level bargaining — that were written into the statute that DHS didn't have but DoD got. So that provides a potential area for difference. There are some different constraints on the appeals process, too. For DHS, going through MSPB [Merit Systems Protection Board] is mandatory for certain kinds of disciplinary actions.
Q: You were at OPM in the 1980s. Are we in a vastly different environment than we were back then, or are some things still the same?
Nesterczuk: Oh, it's vastly different. The Cold War, for one thing. The relatively stability of the Cold War for a place like the Defense Department, for example, where it was a Defense mission, national security mission, but the parameters over time were relatively stable. So you could look at your weapons systems and troop deployment and base requirements over 10-, 15-, 20-year time tables. DoD is now in a rapid-response mode. Their mission has changed drastically. If nothing else, recognizing that huge change helps you go, "OK, is the personnel system that was set up to deal with slow and stable response the same that you would need today?" I'd be quick to say, "Hell no, it is not."
Q: Do you think it's harder to be a federal manager today?
Nesterczuk: It's not much different. It was hard then; it's hard today. The reason is, the nature of government, the constant oversight, the constant tension, the overlapping, duplicative systems within agencies for purposes of control, inspection oversight, program evaluation. You've got overlapping turf and territory between program offices — sometimes by design, sometimes accidentally. And then of course you've got the budget process and the allocation of resources, which aren't the most rational in the world. That makes for a very tough environment.
You don't have the bottom-line measures that allow you to objectively and quickly assess monthly or quarterly what your progress is, what you need to change or adjust to get better or be better. You have fairly subjective evaluation criteria. That's a challenge and it always will be.
Q: What did you take from your experience on Capitol Hill?
Nesterczuk: It's a different world up there than here. People here work on long programs — the shortest might be a few months. Over there, it's days to weeks. As issues arise, you had to jump on it.
The workload is tremendous. The understaffing there is as bad if not worse than in the executive branch.