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Building a First-rate Personnel System

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 18, 2003 – It's all about building a first-rate personnel system to complement a first-rate military, said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

In an interview, Chu spoke about the changes that may come about if Congress allows DoD to set up the National Security Personnel System.

For civilian employees the system will mean pay banding, easier hiring and firing, better compensation for the best personnel and many other aspects.

For military personnel, it will mean that many jobs 300,000 by some estimates now being performed by service members will revert to civilian employees or contractors. It may change the length of time general and flag officers must serve to retire, and it may allow some officers to stay in certain jobs for a longer period of time.

For the reserve components, it may allow individuals to move between active duty and reserve component jobs more easily.

These changes were originally part of the Defense Transformation for the 21st Century Act of 2003. The legislation is now being considered as part of the Defense Authorization Act.

Chu said the vast majority of Americans "think we're stodgy and unresponsive and they are right." Some of that is deserved, but some "reflects the statutes we're forced to operate with." Chu says it takes a long time to hire a new worker. This can cause serious problems in offices, especially if someone leaves unexpectedly.

The department also does a poor job of recognizing excellent workers. Merit pay has to be more than a buzz word, Chu said. Compensation must be tied to performance and the proposals do this.

It is also a problem to fire someone. DoD is not good in getting rid of poor performers, he said. "Everybody wants o be part of a first-rate organization," he said. "And first rate means if you're not cutting it, then you're out of there. And we don't have the mechanisms to do that."

DoD will build on the successes on nine demonstration projects to put pay banding into effect. The department will move immediately to institute the pay reform in the acquisition community the department already has the authority to do that. It must wait for changes in legislation to institute the practice throughout DoD.

If accepted, there will be five career fields with three or four pay bands, depending on the career field. The idea gives managers a lot of flexibility in placing new hires and rewarding good workers, Chu said.

Chu also spoke about proposed changes to reduction-in-force rules. Congress too must pass these changes for them to become effective. Current RIF rules "are dominated by seniority," he said. "That's inconsistent with a pay-for- performance program."

Longevity counts first, veterans preference is second and performance, third. "As a practical matter, performance is such a distant third that it doesn't count," Chu said. "We've proposed to exactly reverse those three items. Performance would be first; veterans status, second; and longevity, third. We're very hopeful that the Congress will give us the authority to do that."

Chu said the proposals don't look to gut the civil service, but to bring it into the 21st century. The proposals respect the "bedrock" of the U.S. Civil Service. But they do place that bedrock firmly in the present.

Some proposals will not make it this year they have not been included in either the Senate or House versions of the bill. There will be no authority to modernize the training system. "Under current law, we cannot train you for a job you don't have," Chu said. This will continue. The undersecretary said the department will resubmit this proposal next year.

He said that charges that the proposals would allow nepotism or political favoritism are "hogwash." He said that prohibited practices will still be prohibited. "It is critical that we assure people that their interests and our interests are aligned," he said. "We have no interest in a weak civil personnel system. We want a strong civil personnel system to produce a first-rate team for the nation."

Chu observed it's important to modernize and transform the system not only for today's personnel, but also for tomorrow's. "We have to appeal to the next generation of talented men and women the new people who are going to make the decision about 'Should I take a public-sector post?'" he said. "We are not seen by the nation's young people as a good choice. We have to change that."

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