Human Capital:

DOD's Civilian Personnel Strategic Management and the Proposed National Security Personnel System

GAO-03-493T: Published: May 12, 2003. Publicly Released: May 12, 2003.

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Derek B. Stewart
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People are at the heart of an organization's ability to perform its mission. Yet, a key challenge for the Department of Defense (DOD), as for many federal agencies, is to strategically manage its human capital. With about 700,000 civilian employees on its payroll, DOD is the second largest federal employer of civilians in the nation. Although downsized 38 percent between fiscal years 1989 and 2002, this workforce has taken on greater roles as a result of DOD's restructuring and transformation. DOD's proposed National Security Personnel System (NSPS) would provide for wide-ranging changes in DOD's civilian personnel pay and performance management, collective bargaining, rightsizing, and other human capital areas. The NSPS would enable DOD to develop and implement a consistent DOD-wide civilian personnel system. Given the massive size of DOD, the proposal has important precedent-setting implications for federal human capital management and OPM. This testimony provides GAO's preliminary observations on aspects of DOD's proposal to make changes to its civilian personnel system and discusses the implications of such changes for government-wide human capital reform. Past reports have contained GAO's views on what remains to be done to bring about lasting solutions for DOD to strategically manage its human capital. DOD has not always concurred with our recommendations.

DOD's lack of attention to force shaping during its downsizing in the early 1990s has resulted in a workforce that is not balanced by age or experience and that puts at risk the orderly transfer of institutional knowledge. Human capital challenges are severe in certain areas. For example, DOD has downsized its acquisition workforce by almost half. More than 50 percent of the workforce will be eligible to retire by 2005. In addition, DOD faces major succession planning challenges at various levels within the department. Also, since 1987, the industrial workforce, such as depot maintenance, has been reduced by about 56 percent, with many of the remaining employees nearing retirement, calling into question the longer-term viability of the workforce. DOD is one of the agencies that has begun to address human capital challenges through strategic human capital planning. For example, in April 2002, DOD published a department wide strategic plan for civilians. Although a positive step toward fostering a more strategic approach toward human capital management, the plan is not fully aligned with the overall mission of the department or results oriented. In addition, it was not integrated with the military and contractor personnel planning. We strongly support the concept of modernizing federal human capital policies within DOD and the federal government at large. Providing reasonable flexibility to management in this critical area is appropriate provided adequate safeguards are in place to prevent abuse. We believe that Congress should consider both government-wide and selected agency, including DOD, changes to address the pressing human capital issues confronting the federal government. In this regard, many of the basic principles underlying DOD's civilian human capital proposals have merit and deserve serious consideration. At the same time, many are not unique to DOD and deserve broader consideration. Agency-specific human capital reforms should be enacted to the extent that the problems being addressed and the solutions offered are specific to a particular agency (e.g., military personnel reforms for DOD). Several of the proposed DOD reforms meet this test. At the same time, we believe that Congress should consider incorporating additional safeguards in connection with several of DOD's proposed reforms. In our view, it would be preferable to employ a government-wide approach to address certain flexibilities that have broad-based application and serious potential implications for the civil service system, in general, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), in particular. We believe that several of the reforms that DOD is proposing fall into this category (e.g., broad-banding, pay for performance, re-employment and pension offset waivers). In these situations, it may be prudent and preferable for the Congress to provide such authorities on a government-wide basis and in a manner that assures that appropriate performance management systems and safeguards are in place before the new authorities are implemented by the respective agency. However, in all cases whether from a government-wide authority or agency specific legislation, in our view, such additional authorities should be implemented (or operationalized) only when an agency has the institutional infrastructure in place to make effective use of the new authorities. Based on our experience, while the DOD leadership has the intent and the ability to implement the needed infrastructure, it is not consistently in place within the vast majority of DOD at the present time.

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