October 29, 2003

Details on Homeland Security personnel system scarce

By Tanya N. Ballard

Despite months of discussion and collaborative efforts between union leaders and federal employees, few details emerged about what a new Homeland Security Department personnel system might look like during a hearing Wednesday.

In April, DHS employees, human resources experts from the Office of Personnel Management and representatives from employee unions began crafting new rules governing pay, hiring procedures, performance evaluation and union involvement at DHS. The process culminated in 52 options that a senior review committee made up of top administration officials and union leaders spent three days discussing earlier this month, with plans to deliver the options and a summary of those discussions to OPM Director Kay Coles James and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Ridge and James will make the final decision on the department's human resources system.

But during a hearing Wednesday before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Civil Service and Agency Organization, officials from OPM and DHS revealed little about what that human resources system might look like, and instead focused on the design process.

"The design process has demonstrated that an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust can be created within which labor and management can work effectively together even when that atmosphere was originally one of distrust and animosity and even when disagreements continue to exist," testified Steven Cohen, senior adviser for Homeland Security at OPM.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., criticized the lack of information about what the personnel system might look like and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., expressed concern about turning over all 52 options to James and Ridge. Van Hollen suggested that pulling out the best of the bunch and presenting them to the two agency heads might prevent the selection of an option that employees are opposed to, which could discredit the much-touted collaborative process.

Union leaders, while pleased that they were able to speak for their members, were not necessarily enamored with the various options, particularly those that sought to eliminate protections, such as collective bargaining and employee appeal rights.

"The fact that proposals were put forth that would eliminate or dilute a wide range of employee rights at DHS, in spite of the unequivocal and unanimous views of employees . . . is troubling," said American Federation of Government Employees Union President John Gage.

James and Ridge are expected to meet with union leaders in early November and the proposed new personnel rules are expected to be published in the Federal Register in early 2004.