Two civilians rehearse exiting a vehicle under attack at Muscatatuck Training Range, an extension of Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in Edinburgh, Ind., Nov. 7, 2012.

Two civilians rehearse exiting a vehicle under attack at Muscatatuck Training Range, an extension of Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in Edinburgh, Ind., Nov. 7, 2012. Photo by Ashley Roy Atterbury-Muscatatuck Public Affairs

The Pentagon's New Grading System for Civilians May Take Even Longer to Get Started

Six years after Congress mandated it, the U.S. military says it's ready to test a new way to assess its civilian workers. But a federal union claims the test-run will be deeply flawed.

A federal labor union is balking at the Defense Department’s approach to implementing a new performance rating system for civilian employees, although union officials insist they support the program overall.

The main sticking point seems to be that the Pentagon wants to begin rolling out the program, known as New Beginnings, on April 1, starting with about 10,000 non-union employees. Officials plan to assess the initial implementation before determining how to fold the rest of the workforce into the new personnel system.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 270,000 Defense civilians, wrote a letter to Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work on Monday raising concerns about that schedule. AFGE’s National President J. David Cox said it creates a “lopsided” and “unrepresentative” test pool. 

“AFGE continues to stand ready to help implement New Beginnings with enthusiasm and dedication so that it can be an enduringly successful reform of the department’s civil service process,” Cox wrote. “However, how this first step is taken towards New Beginnings, particularly with respect to enrolling an initial workforce that is representative of the department’s actual workforce, is of paramount importance.”

The new system has been at least six years in the making; Congress first mandated Defense create a new way to measure the performance of civilian workers when it abolished the National Security Personnel System in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. The law required the Pentagon to craft what became New Beginnings in conjunction with federal unions, which led to a struggle between labor and management. AFGE representatives said Defense was not being as collaborative as it had claimed, and the department rejected many of the proposed changes drafted by “design teams” made up of union representatives and agency management.

The Pentagon settled on a three-tier performance evaluation system -- rather than the pass-fail proposal put forward by the design teams -- and at least three appraisal meetings each year between supervisors and their employees. The ratings will determine performance awards, step increases and other elements of employee evaluations. AFGE eventually decided to back the reforms, but said the department has dragged its feet in putting forward its final guidance.

“When you’re involved in putting together something for a long time, you sort of ebb and flow with your relationship with management,” said Candace Archer, a labor relations specialist with AFGE. “It’s a system that isn’t perfect, but it is certainly something that we support.”

After Defense issued its final instruction in February, union locals were required to bargain over the exact implementation details at each facility and component. Defense cited that ongoing negotiation in its decision to roll out the new policies to non-union employees. AFGE said the instruction came in eight months after it was expected and left too little time for the final negotiations.

Now, the union -- which insists it has no interest in holding up the process -- is concerned the data that comes back from the initial test group will be incomplete. Defense plans to assess the implementation and results from those employees in October, six months after the roll out.

If union and non-union employees “don’t go in together,” Archer said, “the information you get back on how well it’s going isn’t going to be as accurate.”

A Defense spokesman did not respond to whether the Pentagon will heed AFGE’s call. The department will continue placing employees into New Beginnings in phases until virtually all 750,000 civilians are in the program by 2018.

You can read the department's detailed instructions for New Beginnings here.