October 6, 2003

OPM releases suggestions for Homeland Security personnel system

By Shawn Zeller

The Office of Personnel Management Monday posted on its Web site a detailed list of 52 options for the Homeland Security Department's new personnel system. The list includes a range of choices that touch on everything from pay, performance evaluation and job classification systems to labor relations, disciplinary processes and employee appeals.

A senior review committee made up of top Bush administration officials and union leaders will soon cull the list of options in each category. The committee will hear public comments on the choices later this month, and then will forward a short list to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and OPM Director Kay Coles James, who will finalize their choices later this year. Proposed regulations implementing the system should be out early next year.

At a briefing for reporters last week, OPM Senior Adviser for Homeland Security Steve Cohen and DHS Director of Departmental Human Resources Policy Kay Frances Dolan discussed the work of a design committee made up of DHS, OPM and union officials. The team, which since last April has been working to develop the options, met with more than 2,000 DHS employees at 10 different locations.

Cohen said that the design team had engaged in a "collaborative effort" and that all of the options proposed by the team members were included in the team's report to the senior review committee. The design team's report treats all of the options even-handedly, and does not list any preference for any of the options presented in its report. A Sept. 30 GAO report (GAO-03-1099) praised the process and said that it could serve as a model for the Defense Department if Congress grants Defense the opportunity it wants to rewrite its own personnel rules.

But the real battle lies ahead, as the senior review committee narrows the list of options and presents them to Ridge and James. The options for a new pay system, for example, range from plans that would retain the General Schedule classification system to plans that would toss out the GS system in favor of a pay-banding system.

Wide differences also exist in the proposals for a new labor relations system, which include options that would allow the Homeland Security secretary to suspend union contracts if he deemed it necessary for either national security or "mission needs." Another option would expand the scope of bargaining to include negotiations over wages, and hours of work, as well as disputes over pay, appointments and job classifications. Among the disciplinary system options, some would replace the Merit Systems Protection Board with an in-house panel appointed by the DHS secretary, while others would keep the MSPB and boost the agency's burden of proof in taking a disciplinary action against an employee.