Human Capital:

Building on DOD's Reform Effort to Foster Governmentwide Improvements

GAO-03-851T: Published: Jun 4, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 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. DOD's proposed National Security Personnel System would provide for wide-ranging changes in DOD's civilian personnel pay and performance management and other human capital areas. Given the massive size of DOD, the proposal has important precedent-setting implications for federal human capital management. This testimony provides GAO's observations on DOD human capital reform proposals and the need for governmentwide reform.

GAO strongly supports the need for government transformation and the concept of modernizing federal human capital policies both within DOD and for the federal government at large. The federal personnel system is clearly broken in critical respects--designed for a time and workforce of an earlier era and not able to meet the needs and challenges of today's rapidly changing and knowledge-based environment. The human capital authorities being considered for DOD have far-reaching implications for the way DOD is managed as well as significant precedent-setting implications for the rest of the federal government. GAO is pleased that as the Congress has reviewed DOD's legislative proposal it has added a number of important safeguards, including many along the lines GAO has been suggesting, that will help DOD maximize its chances of success in addressing its human capital challenges and minimize the risk of failure. More generally, GAO believes that 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. In GAO's view, the relevant sections of the House's version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 and the proposal that is being considered as part of this hearing contain a number of important improvements over the initial DOD legislative proposal. Moving forward, GAO believes it would be preferable to employ a governmentwide approach to address human capital issues and the need for certain flexibilities that have broad-based application and serious potential implications for the civil service system, in general, and the Office of Personnel Management, in particular. GAO believes 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, GAO believes it would be both prudent and preferable for the Congress to provide such authorities governmentwide and ensure that appropriate performance management systems and safeguards are in place before the new authorities are implemented by the respective agency. Importantly, employing this approach is not intended to delay action on DOD's or any other individual agency's efforts, but rather to accelerate needed human capital reform throughout the federal government in a manner that ensures reasonable consistency on key principles within the overall civilian workforce. This approach also would help to maintain a level playing field among federal agencies in competing for talent and would help avoid further fragmentation within the civil service.

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