Federal work culture set for makeover

Creation of the homeland-security agency paves way for big shifts in pay, recruiting.

Much of the speculation on the new Department of Homeland Security has focused on how 170,000 people from 22 agencies will fit into a new organization chart.

But as these plans take shape, lawmakers and other officials close to the project say the biggest changes may be in the culture of what it means to work for the federal government.

As the terms of the new law were worked out on Capitol Hill, President Bush demanded - and won - broad new powers to assign and redeploy federal workers, including curbing union rights and negotiated work rules for those directly involved in homeland security.

Supporters say it means that the new department will have more freedom to recruit top workers, reward those who are "high performers," and arrange a quicker exit for those who aren't.

Opponents, including federal workers' unions, say the changes will expose federal workers to the "whims of politics" and retribution for whistle-blowing.

Years in the making

Many of these proposals had been bumping around government circles for years, but the momentum from 9/11 - and Republican success in taking back the Senate last month - put some of these changes at the top of the agenda. These include:

• Revamping a compensation system that runs nearly on autopilot. The federal pay scales were designed 50 years ago, at a time when government was 70 percent clerical and 30 percent professional. Those figures have now reversed. The new law allows the Bush administration to increase pay for highly skilled workers and offer bonuses and raises based on performance.

"Shockingly, over 80 percent of the cost associated with annual increases in federal salaries is due to cost-of-living and locality pay adjustment. This must change," said David Walker, comptroller general of the United States in testimony before the National Commission on the Public Service on July 15.

• Reforming federal hiring systems. Current systems are based on the so-called rule of three, which was locked in place in 1871 by President Grant. It limits the range of choices for managers to the top three candidates. The new law allows employers more flexibility in ranking and selecting applicants.

• Changing the perception of government and public service. For decades, job security has been a top reason why people came to work for the federal government. Pay is lower than the private sector, but civil-service protections can shield workers from the downsizing that has ravaged many private companies.

A recent survey of federal workers about to be merged into the new Department of Homeland Security cites job security as a primary reason for their having sought federal employment. But it adds that this is less of a concern for more recent hires.

With half of the federal workforce eligible to retire in the next five years, the problem of how to recruit and retain qualified workers is becoming crucial. Recent surveys show that two-thirds of law-school graduates can't consider working for the federal government because of student debt.

Will people buy into it?

Still, the key element in any reform is whether, in the end, people buy into it. "Unless you have the cooperation of your unions, it's not going to be effective," says Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio, who will be proposing new legislation when the 108th Congress convenes in January to forgive student debt and improve recruitment bonuses.

So far, federal union representatives say they are cautiously optimistic that they will be able to work with the new department. "Tom Ridge had a good record working with labor in the state of Pennsylvania. We are hopeful that will carry over to his new efforts in the Department of Homeland Security," says Diane Witiak, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 600,000 federal workers. The AFGE vigorously opposed the Bush administration's version of the new law.

But other critics say that the new flexibility for management could also put a chill on worker rights, especially for national-security whistle-blowers.

"There is a desperate need for a sea change in the new Homeland Security Department," says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, "because the bureaucracy has maintained a deaf ear to the concerns of national security whistle-blowers since 9/11."

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