As members of a task force reviewing the Defense Department's civilian pay structure left a Pentagon meeting room yesterday, a big guy with a ruddy complexion stood near the door and shook his head in obvious disgust.
"This just isn't good enough," John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told panel members as they walked by.
Gage had hoped the Defense Business Board task group would make like the Grim Reaper on a hot July day and deliver the gift of death to the National Security Personnel System.
Instead, their recommendations left him cold.
"I'm very frustrated," he said during a later interview. "I wasn't happy at all."
Killing NSPS has been at the top of the priority list for Gage and other federal union leaders, who say workers who simply don't trust the pay-for-performance system.
Rather than recommending a death sentence, the task group's interim report called for a "reconstruction of the NSPS." The report's findings describe a system that is "complex," "confusing," "lacks transparency" and has "limited promotion opportunities."
It confirms the lack-of-trust criticism, and it repeatedly implies that Pentagon management does not effectively cooperate with workers. "Reestablishing DOD commitment to collaborating with employees and manager associations," is one recommendation.
But the interim report didn't have much meat on the bone, leaving many questions for the final report and a decision by the full board, which remains weeks away.
Nevertheless, despite Gage's misgivings, even the thin interim document lays the groundwork for dismantling the system that was a keystone of the Bush administration's plan to replace the General Schedule, more widely known as the GS system. Performance rewards also are possible through the GS system, but that mechanism has not been widely effective.
Whatever a reconstructed or new system looks like, it will need a different name. "NSPS" has become "radioactive," as one board member said.
President Obama wants a new system that includes a strong performance-evaluation component, according to Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry. During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would "strongly consider a complete repeal" of NSPS or at least an extensive overhaul of it.
NSPS has been roundly criticized by staff members and union leaders who say subjective performance evaluations could be used to limit pay. The review panel heard many complaints that supervisors were pressured not to give too many employees a rating of 4, out of 5, apparently because money was not available to pay staffers who received the relatively high rating, according to Rudy deLeon, a former deputy secretary of defense who chaired the panel.
Its review is an initial part of an Obama administration effort to restructure the way Uncle Sam judges and pays his workers. The review could play an important role in what the White House, the Office of Management and Budget and the OPM ultimately decide is the best way to evaluate and compensate some 2 million federal employees.
"The thought of starting over on NSPS is comical," William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said in a statement issued after the meeting. "If the recommendation is to scrap NSPS as it exists today, we should not bother creating a new NSPS in its place. We should start with an entirely new concept altogether."
The review panel urged the Pentagon to continue the existing moratorium on converting GS employees to NSPS "until DOD can present a corrective action plan to address identified issues."
Union leaders have a problem with that approach because they believe NSPS is too far gone to correct. "We believe the best course of action is to abandon this failed personnel system once and for all, not try to restructure it," Dougan said.
A major reason NSPS has failed to gain the support of its employees is that it tried to do "too much too soon," said deLeon. The reconstruction the panel recommended is "a lot more complicated that just simply fixing the status quo," he added.
Although the task group was charged with looking at NSPS, its report also made four recommendations for the GS system. Three of them concerned the need for Defense Department management to improve its relationship with staff members. The department should "create a collaborative process" between managers and employees, "reestablish a DOD commitment to collaborating with employees through their unions" and invest in career civil servants, the committee recommended.
Union leaders certainly have no problem with those suggestions, but the remaining one -- "explore the replacement of the current General Schedule classification system" -- is not what they wanted to hear.
"It's very superficial," Gage complained. "It's cavalier."
The task group's report is online at washingtonpost.com/fedpage.
Contact Joe Davidson at firstname.lastname@example.org.