Kicking and Screaming into the New World of Federal Employment

Change is coming slowly to the federal human resources program but changes are being made with a backdrop of litigation and unhappiness.

In a move certain to generate howls of outrage among some, and a sign of reassurance to others, the Department of Defense is moving forward with its implementation of the human resources portion of the National Security Personnel System (NSPS).

The NSPS system has been beset by controversy since its inception. That is not a big surprise since bringing changes to a large organization with organized opposition is certain to incite concern, hostility and outrage. And, in the federal bureaucracy, litigation is a normal part of doing business. Agencies routinely deal with thousands of charges and countercharges on all aspects of the human resources and EEO program.

They agency (along with Congress and the Administration) obviously believe that change is necessary. The bureaucracy is slow and unresponsive to change. In a world that is changing fast, the federal executive branch can easily be viewed as a vestige of a time when communications were slower, global competition was not as much a part of our everyday life, and citing the “war on terror” would bring forth images of soldiers from the Soviet Union or the forces of the Nazi army as the allies were fighting in World War II.

While change may come fairly fast in many quarters of the private sector, it does not come quickly or easily to the federal bureaucracy. Readers are often apoplectic in their view of the changes coming to the Department of Defense or the Department of Homeland Security.

It would appear that fear of terrorist acts and the ability of our government to prevent them are secondary to fears about changes to the federal pay system and the “good old boy” system. In other words, there is widespread concern that the new system will result in some readers not getting as much in the way of future pay raises as they might get under the current system, getting less desirable assignments (e.g., being deployed to a war zone) and having to bend to the wishes of an unreasonable manager or supervisor who will reward his or her friends and punish those who are less cooperative by withholding financial rewards.

Federal employee unions are engaging their publicity departments and lawyers to fight the changes on all fronts and, based on comments submitted by readers, they have certainly been effective in raising the concerns of some of the employees they represent.

And the initial forays into the legal system have been effective. But the changes are complex. Some readers saw news reports of initial union court victories and were heartened to think that the current personnel systems would remain in place.

That may eventually happen but don’t count on it.

The Department of Defense is moving forward with the human resources portion of the new system. For those not familiar with the complexities of the federal personnel world, the human resources program and the labor relations program are related but different. Labor relations usually concerns subjects such as bargaining rights and benefits for unions. The personnel system is often thought of as topics such as pay and benefits.

The labor relations portion of the new NSPS system is stalled, delayed or (in the view of some) dead in the water. But while the appeals go on, DoD has announced it is moving forward with “the flexibilities it needs to be more responsive to the ever-changing national security environment, while preserving employee protections and benefits.”

In other words, with regard to the programs that impact the performance management, compensation and classification, staffing, and workforce shaping provisions of the human resources system, the agency is continuing to forge ahead.

Beginning in April 2006, the first portion of this system will be implemented for about 11,000 employees in what the Defense Department refers to as “Spiral 1.1.”

While the term “spiral” sounds like a computer program that has gone awry, it is a bureaucratic term for a group that meets certain criteria. Here is how the agency uses the term. “Implementing in spirals assures that refinements, if needed, can be made prior to implementation to the remaining eligible DoD units. The criteria used to determine selection of Spiral One was based on organizations that possessed the qualities of workforce adaptability (i.e., is there demonstrated adaptability and readiness for change) and the organization’s strategic framework (i.e., are there human resources management objectives, metric in plan and aligned with the organization’s strategic plan).”

In other words, the first 11,000 employees will be brought into the new system. As problems are encountered, changes will be made to make the system work better.

In effect, the labor relations portion of the program will apparently be held up, delayed or changed significantly. But the rest of the program is moving forward.

For those in “Spiral 1”, welcome to the new world of an executive branch federal employee!

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