In NDAA, shift in attitude toward DoD civilians goes beyond pay raise

After a decade of on-and-off pay and hiring freezes and clampdowns on headquarters staff, Congress may be moving in the opposite direction.

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The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act includes the largest pay raise Defense civilian employees have seen in more than a decade and a landmark provision adding paid family leave.

But the same bill is scattered with indications that Congress wants the Defense Department to invest in its civilian workforce in ways that go beyond pay and benefits. These include placing more civil servants in positions of authority and responsibility, and creating a more formalized training structure for future government employees.

By mid-February, the new law requires DoD to submit an initial plan for standing up a new Defense Civilian Training Corps. The program would be modeled on the military services’ senior Reserve Officer Training Corps system for new officers, and would create a pipeline of graduates to enter the civil service to fill “critical skills gaps.”

As examples, the legislation mentions acquisition, science and engineering professions, but gives the Pentagon wide latitude to focus the program on other areas. DoD will need to have the program up and running at one higher education institution by August 2021, but by the end of 2020, it will need to have delivered a plan to expand it to five more colleges and universities. A year later, lawmakers want a final roadmap to expand it to 20 schools with at least 400 students enrolled by 2023.

Meanwhile, after more than 20 years in which Congress has been trying to restrain the number of civilians working in Defense headquarters positions, it now appears to be loosening the reins — if not moving completely in the other direction.

Perhaps most notably, the new NDAA cancels enforcement of a provision lawmakers added four years ago that required DoD to cut its headquarters spending by 25% by the end of fiscal year 2020. Previous assessments by the Government Accountability Office have suggested the Pentagon was struggling to meet those targets.

The legislation also raises the cap on the number of civilian employees who are allowed to work under the umbrella of the Office of the Secretary of Defense — from 3,767 to 4,300. It allows for similar increases for headquarters offices in the military services and DoD’s Joint Staff.

Congress looking for workforce growth

DoD and the services have routinely worked around that cap with a combination of emergency declarations and exceptions that apply to certain kinds of employees, such as the acquisition workforce. But Congress made clear it’s genuinely interested in workforce growth, at least in some targeted areas.

“The conferees are concerned about civilian-military relations and note a perceived unhealthy drift in decision-making on strategic defense issues away from civilian leaders,” members of the House-Senate conference committee wrote in a report accompanying the final version of the bill. “Therefore, the conferees urge the Secretary of Defense to utilize the relief to existing limitations on civilian personnel supporting the Office of the Secretary of Defense in such a manner as to optimize enhancement of civilian control of the military.”

As a specific example, Congress called out the office of the assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. The 2017 Defense bill boosted that office’s authority in an attempt to build more civilian control of special operations forces.

But lawmakers have been unsatisfied with how that’s played out so far.

“The conferees expect the additional authority and relief of limitations on civilian  personnel will enhance civilian oversight of U.S. Special Operations Command through its ‘service secretary-like’ role.”

Lawmakers also want to get a sense of how the balance between military and civilian personnel has changed within the military’s combatant commands. DoD has a Wednesday deadline to deliver a report detailing how many of each there were assigned to each command in 2014 compared to 2019.

And more broadly, this year’s NDAA explicitly prohibits DoD from managing its civilian workforce solely based on total end-strength or capping its total number of employees.

That provision is in keeping with a policy goal the Pentagon outlined in its 2018 National Defense Business Operations Plan, in which it said it wanted to “right-size” its civilian workforce in ways that would mean growth in some areas.

“Among other things, it specifically moves us away from the practice of managing to an arbitrary cap on government civilians,” wrote John Gibson, the department’s chief management officer at the time. “Such constraints or reductions generally result in the use of military manpower or contracted services to assume workload more appropriately performed by civilians.”

CMO’s days may be numbered

In a report to Congress earlier this year, the CMO’s office said it was working to strengthen the department’s civilian workforce in three ways: Streamlining and speeding up the hiring process, developing a new proposed compensation and classification system, and standardizing the business practices used by DoD’s six main HR service providers.

The Senate confirmed Lisa Hershman as the new CMO less than two weeks ago. She has led the office in an acting capacity since Gibson’s departure more than a year ago, and is scheduled to deliver an update on what the office has accomplished so far in a report that’s due to Congress this week, and every five years after that.

But this year’s NDAA also gives strong indications that the next report may never come, because the CMO’s office may have ceased to exist by then.

Even though it’s only been three years since Congress created the CMO position and made it the third highest-ranking office in the department, this year’s bill indicates the Congressional defense committees see it as an unsuccessful experiment that they’re ready to begin winding down.

“The conferees note the department has faced significant structural challenges in implementing the chief management officer position since its inception,” they wrote. “Accordingly, it is the conferees’ intention to change the position from senior executive schedule II to III and, pending the assessment directed by this section, to disestablish the chief management officer position altogether.”

That section of the NDAA requires two more reports on what the CMO has accomplished so far — one from DoD itself and one from an outside assessor.

“The conferees therefore direct the secretary to ensure the assessment provided for in this section is sufficiently comprehensive to allow for the reassignment of  roles and responsibilities, as well as the authorities that would be necessary for orderly transition of such activities  should the conferees decide to do so.”

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