No Peeking

By David McGlinchey

Top personnel officials at the Pentagon and the Office of Personnel Management are scheduled to finish their review of the National Security Personnel System within "the next several weeks," according to a letter sent to a House lawmaker earlier this month.

The NSPS timetable was revealed in a Jan. 14 letter to Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who had asked that advance copies of the regulations be provided to union representatives and members of the House Government Reform Committee.

Union officials repeatedly have complained that they are being kept in the dark about the new system. In 2003, lawmakers gave the Pentagon the right to scrap the General Schedule system, implement performance pay, reduce union bargaining powers and streamline the employee appeals process. Union negotiators pushed the Defense Department to provide more information, but the Pentagon only agreed to hold preliminary meetings with union officials to gather employee input.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and OPM Director Kay Coles James told Inslee that they had sought union input in the regulations. They said that unions - and members of the general public - will be able to see the regulations when they are published in the Federal Register.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised," Inslee told Government Executive Wednesday. "I have been concerned about the whole process from day one. That's one of the reasons we [made the request], to let them know this wouldn't go by without a fight."

Inslee said he was encouraged that Wolfowitz reinforced his commitment to worker protections, but "this is coming from the same guy who told us that the Iraq war was going to be self-funding, so I'm taking it with a grain of salt."

"The current draft is pre-decisional and not yet reviewed by either of us," Wolfowitz and James wrote. "Our review and approval should occur within the next several weeks, at which time the proposed rules will be published for comment ... This process of providing notice and comment is a well-established, transparent and fair process."

Several other lawmakers have pushed for the Pentagon to make the NSPS process more transparent. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the agency is violating federal statutes by keeping the draft plans away from union officials. Pentagon officials have rejected these charges, saying that they have listened to union opinions. NSPS officials also have said that sharing the proposed rules with unions could be illegal because it would shut other employees out of the process.

In December 2004, NSPS officials announced that about 60,000 Defense Department civilian employees will be transferred to the new National Security Personnel System. That move, which will be the first phase of its launch, is scheduled for the summer of 2005.

According to the letter, there will be a minimum 30-day period for unions to review the proposed rules. Pentagon officials then will meet again with union negotiators for a 30-day "meet and confer" period. The results of those meetings will be sent to Congress and then - after one final 30-day lag - the final NSPS regulations will be published. Based on this timeline, the final regulations should become official in late May