Pentagon stands ground on personnel reforms

By Karen Rutzick

Of the 58,538 comments the Defense Department received on its new personnel system during the mandated meet-and-confer process, at least 45,564 of them voiced "general opposition" to the system, according to final regulations made public Thursday.

The package of reforms, dubbed the National Security Personnel System, is designed to overhaul the Pentagon's labor relations and human resources practices. The Defense Department released draft regulations in February, and accepted comments from the public for 30 days.

NSPS officials said that many of the 45,000-plus negative comments came in the shape of more than 41 form letters and e-mails created by labor organizations and submitted by their members. Roughly 450,000 Defense employees are union members, though not all of them will definitely be among the 650,000 civilians covered by NSPS, the Pentagon reported.

"In general, the comments ranged from overall rejection of the proposed regulations to enthusiastic acceptance," Defense stated in the final regulations. "Acknowledging that there are strong views on the proposals presented, DoD and [the Office of Personnel Management] reviewed and carefully considered all the comments and the arguments made for and against the proposed changes."

But the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents a thousand Defense employees, said the Pentagon essentially ignored the comments.

"That's thousands of people taking the time [to respond]," said J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for AFGE. "[If] they e-mailed in the talking points the union had, then obviously they agreed with that. This is very clearly the actual front line Defense Department workers saying this, [and] that should be listened to."

Morrow said the changes NSPS officials made to their initial proposal on the whole are insignificant, and in some cases, made the situation worse.

For one, in the final regulations Defense changed its rules for overriding existing collective bargaining agreements. Instead of allowing anyone in the Pentagon chain of command to override contracts, the department limited that power to a handful of people in the higher echelons.

Morrow said he thinks the change made the situation worse. He argued that before, local managers could override agreements, possibly because of valid concerns. But now politically appointed and removed supervisors will make the decisions, he said.

Another point altered in the final regulations is the standard for mitigation of adverse actions by the Merit Systems Protection Board. Defense officials changed that standard from "wholly without justification" to "totally unwarranted in light of all pertinent circumstances."

Morrow said the difference is only one of semantics. The revised standard seems equally harsh, he said.

Some of the negative comments likely can be attributed to a fear of change, said Michael Styles, president of the Federal Managers Association.

"Resistance to change is understandable," Styles said. "If you aren't on board and you haven't been educated, when something happens you're going to think [it's the system's fault]."

Styles said he supports the concept of pay for performance and market-based pay, but is pushing for the system be open, and thinks training and education are key to its success.

In the preamble to the regulations, NSPS officials acknowledged there were certain areas in which they simply could not come to agreement with labor groups and their constituents, but insisted the system will be beneficial for employees.

"Significant differences with many of the labor organizations remain," the regulations stated. "These differences cannot be reconciled with the need for a contemporary and flexible system of human resources management as DoD seeks to transform the civilian [workforce]."

Morrow said AFGE, along with the 35 other unions that joined to form the United Department of Defense Workers

Coalition in the spring of 2004, is definitely planning to file a lawsuit against the final regulations, and will probably do so in mid-November. He said that while certain points already jump out, the unions will not know the full substance of the lawsuit until labor representatives have a chance to examine the regulations in detail.

In a briefing on the regulations Wednesday, Navy Secretary Gordon England, who headed the NSPS effort in the Pentagon, said that in the end, employees will be happy with the new system.

NSPS will create "an environment for our people to excel, to be challenged and rewarded," England said. "The vast majority of our people will embrace NSPS."