Senate version of National Defense Authorization Act offers reforms

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

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

The Senate Armed Services Committee recently completed its markup of the bill and moved it on to the full Senate. It contains hundreds of pages but the committee published an excellent executive summary that addresses the highlights.

The bill contains several provisions of interest to federal workers, some specifically for DoD civilians and others which are governmentwide. As always, remember that DoD is often the proving ground for reforms that will eventually be rolled out to other agencies.

Let’s dive deeper into the 2019 NDAA to see what it offers federal workers, and what consequences it could have if passed:


Chief human capital officer

A significant change is that 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. Since passage of the Chief Human Capital Officers Act, DOD has bounced the CHCO role around a bit, previously 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, the deputy assistant secretary for civilian personnel policy and an appointee. With such a change, it is worth considering the political versus career question. Should CHCOs be political appointees, something I did for the Homeland Security Department? Upon leaving, I recommended converting the job 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.

I recommend 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 restricting 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, as Congress continues to show interest in the size of headquarters operations relative to the entire department. 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, which includes a section titled “Comprehensive Pentagon Bureaucracy Reform and Reduction” and 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 two years — graduate degrees or to receive a graduate degree within six months of entering the program.

Fellows would be paid at the GS-10 level, and would receive a one-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

DoD would receive a two-year exemption from having new SES appointments reviewed by an Office of Personnel Management qualifications review board. The authority would be limited to 50 appointment per year, and would expire after two 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 likely ensure that it does no harm.

Direct hire authority for recent STEM graduates

This provision is limited to DoD science and technology reinvention laboratories and major range and test facilities. It applies only to graduates of minority serving institutions and is a good start, but it might be even more helpful if it applied to the entire department and to every accredited school.

Expedited hiring authority for college graduates, post-secondary students

This provision would be applied governmentwide and would provide for appointments at GS-11 and below for students and recent graduates, meaning within two years. It provides an extension for military service members but is not a direct hire authority, due to the fact that it requires 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 the age of 30 has dropped precipitously. This provision is an excellent first step in reversing that trend.

Voluntary separation incentive payments

While DoD already has a $40,000 cap on these buyouts, the limit would be applied governmentwide 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 that 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.

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Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.