Senate Version of National Defense Authorization Act Offers Reforms

The author summarizes reforms from the 2019 NDAA that will be of most interest to federal employees.

The primary vehicle for advancing civil service reform in the Department of Defense (and often the rest of government) is the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The 2019 NDAA is no exception.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) recently completed its markup of the bill and moved it on to the full Senate. The bill is hundreds of pages, but the SASC published an excellent Executive Summary that addresses the highlights.

The bill contains several provisions that are of interest to federal workers. Some apply only to Defense civilians, while others apply government wide.

As always, remember that DOD is often the proving ground for reforms that will eventually be rolled out to other agencies.

Let’s take a look at the 2019 NDAA and see what it offers for federal workers, and what effects it may have if passed.

Chief Human Capital Officer

The bill renames the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness as the Under Secretary for Personnel and clarifies its role as the DOD Chief Human Capital Officer. This change is significant.

Since passage of the Chief Human Capital Officers Act, DOD has bounced the CHCO role around a bit, assigning it the Under Secretary for Personnel and Readiness, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civilian Personnel Policy, and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs. Those positions have been political appointees and career officials. The role is currently assigned to Anita Blair, who is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civilian Personnel Policy and an appointee.

There are two issues to consider on this one. First is the political vs career question. Should CHCOs be political appointees?

I served as CHCO for the Department of Homeland Security as a political appointee. When I left, I recommended the job be converted to career, primarily to make it more likely that the person who filled the job would actually know something about the work.

While Ms. Blair is a political appointee, she is also a highly experienced HR professional. Moving the CHCO designation up in the organization makes it more likely that the title and the work of the CHCO will not be in the same place.

If this provision becomes law, the Under Secretary will be designated as the CHCO, but the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civilian Personnel Policy will almost certainly continue to do the work. My recommendation would be that the Senate drop the language and leave the CHCO role where it is.

Limitations on Major Headquarters

The bill includes language that would limit headquarters levels by limiting funds. It says, “In any fiscal year after fiscal year 2020, the aggregate amount that may be obligated and expended on major headquarters activities may not exceed an amount equal to 1.6 percent of the average amount authorized to be appropriated for the Department of Defense (including for overseas contingency operations) over the 10 fiscal years ending with the preceding fiscal year.”

It limits the Office of the Secretary of Defense to “not more than an amount equal to 0.4 percent of the average amount authorized to be appropriated for the Department of Defense (including for overseas contingency operations) over the 10 fiscal years ending with the preceding fiscal year.” Military department headquarters are limited to 1 percent.

Congress continues to show interest in the size of headquarters operations relative to the entire department, so this provision is a means of dealing with it without prescribing a particular limit on staffing. It differs from the version of the NDAA in the House of Representatives, which includes a section titled “Comprehensive Pentagon Bureaucracy Reform and Reduction.” The House version requires a 25 percent cut in certain management functions. The Senate approach of limiting headquarters functions to a percentage of total spending seem to be a less complicated and more executable approach.

Security Clearances

These provisions require an expedited clearance process for mission critical positions, as well as mandating that DOD report on the feasibility of implementing a “Clearance in Person Concept.”

Clearance in person would “permit an individual who has been granted a national security clearance to maintain eligibility for access to classified information, networks and facilities after the individual has separated from service to the Federal Government or transferred to a position that no longer requires access to classified information.”

It would also “ensure that, unless otherwise directed by the Security Executive Agent, the individual’s security clearance would be recognized as current, regardless of employment status, with no further need for investigation or revalidation until the individual obtains a position requiring access to classified information.”

There is widespread agreement that the security clearance processes in government need reform. This approach is one of several being considered, and could be beneficial if it is feasible to implement.

Strategic Defense Fellows Program

This is described as “a civilian fellowship program designed to provide leadership development and the commencement of a career track toward senior leadership in the Department.” Limited to 60 participants per year, the program would require participants to have recent (within 2 years) graduate degrees or to receive a graduate degree within 6 months of entering the program.

Fellows would be paid at the GS-10 level, and would receive a 1-year excepted service appointment, after which they could be converted to a permanent appointment. The advanced pay rate, opportunity to engage in interesting and meaningful work, and exclusive nature of the program would most likely mean the department would have no trouble finding high quality applicants. As long as such a program did not devolve into a sort backdoor political appointment, it could be a useful program.

Senior Executive Service Qualifications Review Boards (QRB)

DOD would receive a 2-year exemption from having new SES appointments reviewed by an OPM QRB. The authority would be limited to 50 appointment per year, and would expire after 2 years. DOD would be required to report on its use of the authority, and assess whether it speeds the hiring process and how it affects quality of hires.

Proposals to reform the QRB process are not uncommon, and this one is a reasonable approach that would most like ensure that it does no harm.

Direct Hire Authority for recent Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Graduates

This provision is limited to DOD science and technology reinvention laboratories and Major Range and Test Facilities, and applies only to graduates of minority serving institutions.

It is a good start, but might be even more helpful if it applied to the entire department and to every accredited school.

Expedited Hiring Authority for College Graduates and Post-Secondary Students

This provision would be applied government wide and would provide for appointments at GS-11 and below for students and recent graduates (within 2 years). It provides an extension for military service members. It is not a direct hire authority, because it requires that the positions be advertised. Agencies would have to follow regulations prescribed by OPM, and appointments would be limited to 15 percent of the number of competitive appointments an agency made to similar positions during the previous fiscal year.

Since the Federal Career Intern Program was abolished, the number of federal employees under 30 has dropped precipitously. This provision is an excellent first step in reversing that trend.

Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (Buyouts)

The cap on buyouts would be raised to $40,000 for the rest of the government (DOD is already at $40,000) and then indexed to the Consumer Price Index. This provision has been needed for a long time and is a good step toward giving agencies better tools to manage workforce reductions and realignments.

I expect to see the practice of rolling out reforms in DOD and then expanding them to continue. The NDAA is one of the “must-pass” bills the Congress deals with annually, and it typically has strong bipartisan support. DOD’s mission gives it a stronger basis for getting reforms and it has a generally good record of implementing them successfully.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog,, and has been reposted here with permission from the author. Visit to read more of Jeff's articles regarding federal human resources and other current events along with his insights on reforming the HR system.

About the Author

Jeff Neal is author of the blog and was previously the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.