FEATURES Rebooting Reform
Alyssa Rosenberg | Government Executive
December 21, 2009
Dismantling the embattled Defense personnel system could spark a reinvention of performance management across government.
When President Obama signed legislation that repealed the National Security Personnel System, on a warm day in late October, the Rose Garden celebration seemed like a bit of a letdown. The rollback of the controversial Defense Department pay program was just one of many federal employee provisions bundled into the fiscal 2010 National Defense Authorization Act and was largely overshadowed by hate crimes legislation. Unlike the protests outside the meetings of a review board assigned to assess NSPS this summer and the heated lawsuits challenging the system, the work that went into passing the rollback took place largely behind the scenes.
Despite the massive push by federal employee unions, lawmakers and outside experts to end NSPS – the biggest symbol of the Bush administration’s personnel experiments – the real work begins now.
The Defense Department must find a way to return 200,000 workers to the pay systems that covered them previously, and to make sure no one’s salary is reduced along the way. Working in conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management, Defense has until April 2010 to propose yet another alternative pay system, and until October 2010 to design a performance management system that will cover its employees. As OPM begins work on a governmentwide package of personnel reforms, the demise of a program federal employee groups almost uniformly referred to as “toxic” could create the good will necessary for much broader changes.
Eight months ago, at an April House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing, witnesses from Defense and the Government Accountability Office acknowledged that no law or concrete plan existed for undoing the National Security Personnel System. “Certainly, we were mindful of some potential issues we’d have to look at,” says Tim Curry, acting program executive officer for NSPS. But the department is only now beginning its formal planning process for transferring employees out of the program. “We’re proceeding cautiously and deliberately,” he says.
The Defense authorization established only basic rules for the rollback. The Defense Department must begin shifting employees back into the pay systems that covered them before they moved into NSPS, a transition that must be completed by Jan. 1, 2012. The legislation declared that “no employee shall suffer any loss of or decrease in pay” when they are returned to their old system. But it does not specify whether employees, who were moved into NSPS in stages called spirals, should be converted back in any particular order. And it doesn’t account for the fact that after several years of evaluations and raises, not all NSPS employees fit neatly into their previous grades and steps.
One place to start, say the leaders of some employee groups, might be with people who were moved into NSPS most recently.