Friday, January 28, 2005

Doubts about DHS New Personnel System

Civil Service System on Way Out at DHS (

From Wednesday's Post
"The Bush administration unveiled a new personnel system for the Department of Homeland Security yesterday that will dramatically change the way workers are paid, promoted, deployed and disciplined -- and soon the White House will ask Congress to grant all federal agencies similar authority to rewrite civil service rules governing their employees.

The new system will replace the half-century-old General Schedule, with its familiar 15 pay grades and raises based on time in a job, and install a system that more directly bases pay on occupation and annual performance evaluations, officials said. The new system has taken two years to develop and will require at least four more to implement, they said."
I've reservations about such changes. The world little remembers the Civil Service reform efforts of Jimmy Carter, but maybe I'm not of this world. The Senior Executive Service was part of it (Not the world, Carter's reform). Never having reached that exalted level, I'm not sure, but I don't think it fulfills the promises made for it. Another part, now scrapped, was a reform of the merit pay system, less far-reaching than the DHS system but subject to some of the same problems:

  1. Do the personnel (sorry, human resources) people in HSD buy into it? That's not clear. "Not invented here" is a real problem everywhere.
  2. Conflicting priorities--if you're a line manager in HSD trying to focus on your mission, you may well resent diverting your attention to learning the ins and outs of some new fangled idea, particularly if your employees start worrying about the process and it looks to you as if the new system won't improve your ability to manage. People find reasons not to change.
  3. Reluctance to judge--I never saw a manager or employee who welcomed a discussion of strengths and weaknesses. Maybe reality TV shows like American Idol prove modern youths are different. Maybe Judge Chertoff can create a culture in DHS of frankness without recrimination. Maybe there's a tooth fairy. The Civil Service System is not bad, it just doesn't work. The words on paper are good, the actions in reality are something different. The challenge for DHS is to achieve some congruence between paper system (where "paper" includes "computers") and what happens every day.
  4. Lack of performance standards--one of the reasons we have government perform a function instead of free enterprise is the lack of clear standards.
Maybe the changes will work as claimed. More likely after 20 years or so we'll find there's some improvements and some problems. Or possibly, DHS and the reform effort will require more reforms, more reorganizations.

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