Battling for Hearts and Minds in Defense

Change comes slowly to a large, bureaucratic organization. The proposed changes to the civil service structure in DoD are no exception. The public relations battle is just the first round.

The battle is on the win the hearts and minds of employees in the Department of Defense. It is likely to go on for a long time.

With the biggest changes in the civil service system since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 rapidly moving down the tracks, those with a direct interest in the outcome are jumping on the train or trying to derail it.

Federal employee unions are pulling out all the stops.

Never known for subdued rhetoric, employees in the Deplartment of Defense reading union literature on the new system will undoubtedly fear the future. According to this view, their pay will be cut, they can (and will) be transferred into less desirable jobs with little or no warning; their jobs can (and will) be going away; and incompetent, abusive supervisors will be running about the Pentagon terrorizing employees with threats to withhold their pay through the use of a poor performance rating.

The answer to this horrifying series of events is to pay dues to the union, join protest marches, write to anyone with any authority to stop or influence the changes, and call or write the media to warn all Americans that the administration is intent on destroying the American way of life-at least as it is lived in the Department of Defense.

On the other hand, the agency’s literature supporting the changes tries to convince these same employees that those that work hard and succeed in their jobs will get more money and recognition; that the nation will be more secure as a result of the agency being able to quickly rise to the defense of the country; that incompetent deadbeats who currently get the same pay raises as the best performers will no longer be able to receive the same pay as those who actually work; and that the federal workforce will be operating more efficiently than under the current civil service system.

Any major change is going to bring resistance, especially from a large bureaucracy with a host of vested interests in maintaining the current system.

The federal unions have a lot to lose with the new system. One of major attributes of the current system is the ability to impede change. The obligation to bargain also implies that change can’t be made until there is an agreement. As negotiations can take weeks, months or years, change sometimes doesn’t happen because the system is too cumbersome.

The ability to impede change will be greatly reduced under the new system. While membership dues may increase in the short run, if the system is successful, it is possible fewer employees will see the need for a union and membership may slowly shrivel. Union membership in the private sector has been dwindling for decades and fearing the same chain of events in the federal government a reasonable fear.

Telling employees they should all join now to prevent union membership from declining is not likely to be an effective sales technique. It is far more likely that employees will respond to exhortations they are about to lose their pay, their way or life and, ultimately, their jobs.

Those supporting the new system don’t want to scare employees but want them to feel good about it. The publicity campaign to gain support of DoD employees emphasizes the new system retains the benefits and protection they have now but that “NSPS will strengthen DoD civilian employees’ ability to accomplish the mission in an ever-changing defense environment.”

And, with regard to unions, the agency tries to qualm fears by telling employees unions will still exist and that unions will still bargain contracts but that “The proposed rules enable to the Department to act expeditiously in carrying out its mission by limiting the situations that are subject to bargaining, and speeding up the bargaining process.”

The reality is the most people naturally fear change. The unions can be expected to fan this fear until the final changes are implemented.

The other reality is that Congress and the Administration don’t think the existing system works and needs to be changed to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving military environment.

It is clear change is coming. There are always winners and losers with new systems. We know the winners are projected to be the best performing employees and “mission accomplishment.” The projected are poor performers who sometimes still do well under the current civil service system.

Not knowing whether these projections are accurate is cause for uncertainty. At least for those in DoD, the certitude that Uncle Sam was one of the most secure jobs in the country is no longer there.

Look for the continuing public relations battle to continue unabated. Once the new system is in place, the focus will likely shift to testing the new system for cracks and weakness through legal and administrative proceedings-just as was done when the new Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 entered the federal workplace. The final result, after years of controversy and litigation, were some significant changes but with much of the system (including pay for performance for managers) eventually looking very much like the same system that was being reformed.

Change never comes easy in a large, bureaucratic organization. You can look for the fight on this new system to go on for a long time.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47