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Modernizing Merit

Ensuring Collaboration and Coordination

The three guiding principles described above all have to do with the substance of a 21st Century civil service system, its core principles and overarching architecture. However, if modernizing this storied institution depends on successfully balancing the inevitable tension between agency flexibilities on one hand, and common values and economies on the other, process becomes just as important as content. Thus, our fourth and final guiding principle: the modernization process must be collaborative, and the implementation and operation of the agency-specific systems that emerge from it must be managed by OPM, carefully coordinated so as to avoid adverse externalities.

No institution can transform itself successfully without the “buy-in” of its most critical stakeholders; in the case of the Federal civil service, that means everybody from senior agency executives and managers to front-line employees and the organizations that represent them. It also means OPM. That buy-in becomes even more important in a future that features agency-specific HR systems. If those systems are to be credible, they must be designed in a way that is as open and transparent, as inclusive and collaborative as possible. Congress has recognized the importance of collaboration in this regard, requiring it of both DHS and DoD, not only with their employee organizations, but also with OPM…the latter clearly in its stewardship capacity.

One need only look to the still-pending development of the Department of Homeland Security’s HR system for our model. First, by statute, that system must be “jointly prescribed” by the Secretary and the OPM Director, and as a result, OPM has been a full partner in its design from the beginning. So too were DHS managers, employees, and unions…on the joint OPM/DHS design team, through focus groups and town hall meetings across the country, and finally, in the “meet and confer” process that, by law, serves as the terminal step in the system’s design. And the regulations that will actually establish the system have been published in proposed form for full public review and comment. The entire process has been characterized by its openness and inclusion, and while it has added time, we believe that the end result will be far better for it. That lesson has not been lost on DoD, and with OPM, it has embarked on a similar path in the design of the new NSPS.

However, collaboration in design and development is not enough. Even as individual agencies, jointly with OPM, design their own HR systems, the implementation and operation of those separate systems must be carefully managed so as to preclude (or at least minimize) any adverse impact on other agencies. This responsibility too must rest with OPM. In the proposed DHS regulations, it is described as “coordination,” a deliberately bland, bureaucratic term that is nonetheless pivotal to modernizing merit. As we have defined it, coordination affords agencies wide latitude in administering their own HR systems, but it reserves to OPM the ultimate authority -- indeed, the obligation -- to intervene when the exercise of one agency’s flexibility has the potential for adversely affecting others across Government…and if necessary, to veto that flexibility.

OPM plays this coordinating role today (such as in setting special salary rates), and that concept has been expressly incorporated into the proposed DHS regulations at several vital points…points where DHS actions may potentially “spillover” to other agencies. For example, OPM coordination is required as the Department establishes its occupational clusters and paybands, including their minimum and maximum rates of pay, especially with respect to job families that are common to other agencies; OPM coordination is also required as the Department sets nationwide and locality-based pay adjustments each year. In keeping with this fourth principle of modernization, the Defense Department’s NSPS will include similar OPM coordination points, so as to assure that cross-agency effects are taken into account and mitigated.

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