Defense, OPM officials face questions on new personnel rules

By Shawn Zeller

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday pressed top officials at the Defense Department and the Office of Personnel Management for more details about the Pentagon's design for its new personnel system. But OPM Acting Director Dan G. Blair and Navy Secretary Gordon R. England said they would not be able to provide more information until after a congressionally mandated "meet-and-confer" period with Defense labor unions ends this spring or summer.

England said the department was just a third of the way into designing the system, even as it plans to roll out the first phase three months from now.

The Pentagon's position is a "big yellow caution light," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. "I don't know how you can expect employees to feel comfortable when so many questions are unanswered."

Clinton was joined in her concern by Republican committee members, led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who also pressed Blair and England for more details on the new system.

Much of the concern focused on Defense's plan to scale back collective bargaining and bring it under the control of an internal panel, the National Security Labor Relations Board, whose members will be appointed--and could be dismissed--by the Defense secretary. The board largely will replace the independent Federal Labor Relations Authority in resolving disputes between employee unions and Defense management.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees and spokesman for a group of more than 20 unions representing Defense employees, said he feared the panel would be a "kangaroo court" and said that Defense should allow the unions to have representation on the board.

England and Blair also fielded skeptical inquiries about the Pentagon's plans for adjudicating employee appeals of agency disciplinary decisions, laying off workers and setting performance raises.

The two men tried to reassure the committee, indicating that the preliminary regulations released in February may change substantially during the meet-and-confer period. They also said that they were reviewing closely the thousands of public comments, most of which were critical, that flowed in after the preliminary regulations were released.

Some new details emerged about Defense's plan during the session. England said, for example, that the Pentagon would ask its managers to set down employee performance expectations in writing.

Some details on training plans also emerged. England said that 1 million training hours were planned to accompany the first phase in the rollout of the National Security Personnel System, with managers receiving 18 hours of training each and human resources specialists 40 hours.

England said that Defense was "not doing away with collective bargaining but trying to balance" it with the department's mission. At the same time, he said he understood employees' concerns. "The system has to be equitable," he said. People are "our most critical resource in the Department of Defense....We are determined to make this a win for our employees, and a win for national security."

But Gage said later in the hearing that the new system "reduces the scope of bargaining to virtually nothing."

To concerns raised over the fairness of performance evaluations, Blair and England said there would be multiple layers of management review, and that front-line supervisors would be judged on how well they evaluate their staff.

Under questioning, England indicated that Defense likely would follow the Homeland Security Department, which earlier this year finalized plans for its new system, in allowing employees to file grievances challenging their ratings.

He also dismissed concerns that Defense would unfairly weigh performance during reductions in force. Senators expressed fears that the department would only protect employees who'd received outstanding ratings in the most recent year, so that a strong employee with 10 years of experience and an above-average rating would be laid off before a new employee who'd earned an outstanding rating. England said that would not be the case.

Still, members of the committee, especially Democrats, seemed unconvinced. "Just be sure that we are not throwing the baby out with the bath," said Clinton. "I'm afraid we are tilting the balance too far in the other direction."