The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stepped into line with a commonly accepted practice in corporate America: tying pay increases to performance and the type of job performed.
Last week, the department formally announced its plans to shed an outdated federal system of handing out annual pay increases as a matter of course. The new rules would give government managers the flexibility they need in DHS's primary task of countering terrorists.
Salaries will be structured according to the type of work, a person's experience, and job location - and, notably, not by seniority. And in the case of a national emergency, the president can waive labor agreements.
Federal employees' union officials, as expected, are skeptical, and plan to appeal to Homeland Secretary Tom Ridge before the final rules are issued later this year.
But Congress agreed to such rules when it set up DHS after Sept. 11, and the unions must recognize that the new system both protects basic employee rights and helps create an effective antiterrorist department.
DHS began putting together 180,000 employees from some 22 government agencies in 2002. When a similar restructuring is complete at the Defense Department, about half the government's 1.8 million civilian employees will have made the transition to the new merit system. That's costly in the short term, but cost-saving in the long run.
The new rules should enable the US to respond faster in times of crisis than previous civil service rules allowed.