Draft proposal calls for major revamp of DoD civilian personnel system

A set of recommendations awaiting action from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would significantly expand the Pentagon’s authority over its civilian workforce, a measure that proponents say would give DoD the flexibility it desperately needs to recruit and retain workers and manage their career advancement in a 21st century economy.

The proposal, which also would require congressional approval, would remove Defense civilians from the authorities in Title 5, the section of federal law governing most of the civil service in which workforce policies are generally overseen by the Office of Personnel Management and transfer them to Title 10, which governs military personnel and some present-day DoD civilian workers.

“There are currently 66 different civilian personnel systems within the Department of Defense, each with different rules and flexibilities,” the recommendation’s authors wrote. “The Department of Defense must begin to move its civilian workforce under a single authority controlled directly by the Secretary of Defense … the General Schedule (GS) personnel system is outdated, rigid and representative of a workforce demographic from more than 60 years ago.”

Carter has not decided whether to ask Congress’ permission for the proposed workforce change. It was detailed in a draft, pre-decisional version of the “Force of the Future” recommendations the Secretary ordered his staff to draw up as he prepares to seek a broad series of personnel reforms affecting both civilians and military members.

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The portion of the draft document dealing with civilian personnel was distributed to news outlets on Tuesday by the American Federation of Government Employees, which derided the proposal as a redux of the National Security Personnel System, which AFGE and other federal unions convinced Congress to repeal in 2009.

“The Department of Defense is spinning these proposals as the ‘Force of the Future,’ but they are nothing more than a bad flashback,” AFGE President J. David Cox said in a statement. “NSPS was one of the most spectacular failures in personnel management, and we object to these proposals being repackaged and sold to us again. It is clear that this move would give the current Defense secretary and any future secretary a blank check to craft a personnel system that could easily undermine and violate the fundamental principles of our long-established commitment to a merit-based civil service system.”

Brad Carson, the acting undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, has led the Force of the Future initiative. His team delivered its initial personnel reform recommendations to Carter in August. The portion of the draft dealing with civilians says Defense employees would not be covered by existing OPM civil service rules, but that the new authorities would nonetheless maintain “merit system principles,” including veterans’ preference in hiring and civil service protections that would be “consistent” with existing policies.

The document also emphasizes that DoD would not attempt to create a new personnel system, ala-NSPS, right out of the gate. For the time being, the department would only look for additional authority. The creation of any formal system would require much more study.

But the authors said the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (DCIPS), which already operates under Title 10, should serve as the basic model for a future Defense personnel structure.

In that model, DoD has more streamlined hiring authorities and can promote employees at any time based solely on their performance: time in grade in their current job would be a non-factor. While veterans’ preference would still exist, veteran status would mainly serve as a “tie-breaker” if two highly-qualified applicants were up for the same job.

Employees moved into the Title 10 excepted service would largely leave the current GS pay system behind. DoD could set salaries according to the market value of any particular profession, but still subject to pay caps for employees at the higher end of the scale. The military also could extend the probationary period for new employees to two years instead of one.

“At a time when private sector recruitment and compensation practices are aggressive and highly adept at targeting a talent spectrum ranging from new college graduates to seasoned professionals in various fields, the department is increasingly unable to recruit diverse and top-tier talent efficiently and effectively,” the draft report’s authors wrote. “When vacancies are filled, supervisors have expressed concern over the talent they ultimately attained. The limited hiring flexibilities afforded under Title 5, such as direct hire authority and recruiting bonuses, are largely centralized outside of the DoD in a way that requires OPM approval for any expansions in how these authorities are applied. … The OPM-regulated hiring process provides unsatisfactory lists of highly qualified candidates, and OPM has been slow to recognize and refine the system to allow the application of veterans’ preference only amongst the truly best qualified.”

The new civilian management authorities for DoD would be among a bevy of official requests from the department to change its human resources system if Carter were to agree to them and forward the ones requiring Congressional approval to Capitol Hill.

Among the other ideas on the Secretary’s desk:

  • Faster processes for firing or demoting “low performers.” To that end, DoD would create a central office of HR experts and labor relations lawyers with expertise in performance management and the “divestiture” of low-performing employees.
  • Creating paid parental leave for all civilian employees.
  • “Broadening” employees’ opportunities with a civilian joint duty assignment for mid-career civilian employees and allowing civilians to change jobs between Defense components and military departments.
  • The creation of an “Independent Hiring Gateway,” which would serve as an alternative to the government’s USAJobs portal. The Intelligence community has already begun piloting a similar system.
  • Boosting existing scholarship funding for mission-critical positions.
  • Implementing a cloud-based, software-as-a-service IT system to manage civilian personnel, pay and other HR functions.