For Civil Service in 2003, No Shortage of Defining Events

By Stephen Barr

Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page C02

As the year draws to an end, there's no doubt that 2003 represents a turning point for the civil service.

Asked to identify the most significant civil service development in 2003, a number of experts pointed to the new law that allows the Department of Defense to establish its own pay and personnel system.

The National Security Personnel System, as the Pentagon calls it, will overhaul how 746,000 defense civilians are paid, promoted and disciplined. Its approval by Congress and the president came a year after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which was granted the authority to revamp its work rules for 180,000 employees.

Once the two departments have their systems up and running -- probably in about two years -- more than half of the civil service will be outside the General Schedule, the system of 15 grade levels and 10 pay rates per level that has provided uniformity and stability to the federal government since shortly after World War II.

John M. Palguta, a vice president with the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, said 2003 represents "the beginning of the end for the federal government's outdated, inflexible pay and job classification system established by the Classification Act of 1949."

He added, "It's now only a matter of time before the General Schedule fades away entirely, and 2003 will be marked as the beginning of its end."

Paul C. Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a New York University professor, said: "I think the DoD breakout is the most significant event not just of the past year, but of the past 25. It has the potential to remake the civil service system. If done well, it could open the way to a new era in high-performance government. If done poorly, it could confirm every worst fear of how politics has come to shape personnel policy. I'm betting on [Defense Undersecretary] David Chu to produce the right plan, but am worried that DoD managers lack the training to implement the system effectively. They're being asked to do things they've never done before."

There were other developments, however, that were viewed as just as important by federal employees who work outside the Beltway and outside the defense-homeland security arena.

Paul Barnes, regional commissioner for the Social Security Administration in Atlanta, said changes that provide greater flexibility in hiring won his vote for most significant development of 2003. "Replacing people when they retire -- hiring new people -- is a huge deal for us," Barnes said.

Software improvements at USAJobs, where the government posts job openings on the Internet, has "allowed us to significantly reduce how long it takes to hire quality people," he said.

In addition, he said, the new federal career intern program allows managers to establish local job registers. That leads to fewer people turning down job offers and helps managers address their needs, such as recruiting bilingual employees to help serve the growing Hispanic population in the Southeast, Barnes said.

George Lydford, a revenue agent with the Internal Revenue Service in Phoenix, said, "My opinion is the budget deficit is the most significant thing that is happening now, and it will affect federal employees more later than now."

The deficit, he said, "will cause the government to tighten its belt. . . . At some time down the road, it is going to have to be paid for, so the programs of the federal government -- the civilian part -- will be cut or severely reduced until we won't be able to hire the staff we need."

Sonya Kimberlin, an Agriculture Department community development manager in Scott County, Ind., cited the "continuing resolution" -- the interim funding measure that keeps the government open through Jan. 31 because not all appropriations bills were enacted by the Oct. 1 deadline.

The CR "does not allow us to effectively deliver our programs," Kimberlin said. "Our customers don't understand why we don't have any more control over our funding. It makes us look like 'the typical government program' that they hear about." She added, "We don't like getting the negative image caused by that."

As part of Agriculture's rural development agency, Kimberlin helps provide housing loans for people building or purchasing their first home. Under the CR, she said, her office can spend at a rate equal to 25 percent of last year's budget.

"It puts our customers in a hardship," she said.