Human Capital:

Preliminary Observations on Proposed DOD National Security Personnel System Regulations

GAO-05-432T: Published: Mar 15, 2005. Publicly Released: Mar 15, 2005.

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The Department of Defense's (DOD) new human resources management system--the National Security Personnel System (NSPS)--will have far-reaching implications for the management of the department and for civil service reform across the federal government. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 gave DOD significant authorities to redesign the rules, regulations, and processes that govern the way that more than 700,000 defense civilian employees are hired, compensated, promoted, and disciplined. In addition, NSPS could serve as a model for governmentwide transformation in human capital management. However, if not properly designed and effectively implemented, it could severely impede progress toward a more performance- and results-based system for the federal government as a whole. On February 14, 2005, the Secretary of Defense and Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released for public comment the proposed NSPS regulations. This testimony (1) provides GAO's preliminary observations on selected provisions of the proposed regulations, (2) discusses the challenges DOD faces in implementing the new system, and (3) suggests a governmentwide framework to advance human capital reform.

Given DOD's massive size and its geographically and culturally diverse workforce, NSPS represents a huge undertaking for DOD. DOD's initial process to design NSPS was problematic; however, after a strategic reassessment, DOD adjusted its approach to reflect a more cautious, deliberate process that involved more stakeholders, including OPM. Many of the principles underlying the proposed NSPS regulations are generally consistent with proven approaches to strategic human capital management. For instance, the proposed regulations provide for (1) elements of a flexible and contemporary human resources management system--such as pay bands and pay for performance; (2) DOD to rightsize its workforce when implementing reduction-in-force orders by giving greater priority to employee performance in its retention decisions; and (3) continuing collaboration with employee representatives. (It should be noted that 10 federal labor unions have filed suit alleging that DOD failed to abide by the statutory requirements to include employee representatives in the development of DOD's new labor relations system authorized as part of NSPS.) GAO has three primary areas of concern: the proposed regulations do not (1) define the details of the implementation of the system, including such issues as adequate safeguards to help ensure fairness and guard against abuse; (2) require, as GAO believes they should, the use of core competencies to communicate to employees what is expected of them on the job; and (3) identify a process for the continuing involvement of employees in the planning, development, and implementation of NSPS. Going forward, GAO believes that (1) the development of the position of Deputy Secretary of Defense for Management, who would act as DOD's Chief Management Officer, is essential to elevate, integrate, and institutionalize responsibility for the success of DOD's overall business transformation efforts, including its new human resources management system; (2) DOD would benefit if it develops a comprehensive communications strategy that provides for ongoing, meaningful two-way communication that creates shared expectations among employees, employee representatives, and stakeholders; and (3) DOD must ensure that it has the institutional infrastructure in place to make effective use of its new authorities before they are operationalized. GAO strongly supports the concept of modernizing federal human capital policies, including providing reasonable flexibility. There is general recognition that the federal government needs a framework to guide human capital reform. Such a framework would consist of a set of values, principles, processes, and safeguards that would provide consistency across the federal government but be adaptable to agencies' diverse missions, cultures, and workforces.

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