DoD Scales Back Pay Reform Delay, cutbacks endanger NSPS

Department officials reduced by 81 percent the first group of employees to be covered by the pay plan and they pushed back the start date from next month to April 30, under a revised launch plan unveiled on Jan. 17.
Employees dropped from the initial rollout — including all employees covered by unions — would be moved to the system later this year or early next year under the new plan.
Defense officials said the delay and scaling down of the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) demonstrates the department’s commitment to making sure employees and supervisors are properly trained before the plan moves forward. NSPS is supposed to change dramatically how employees are paid, promoted and managed in an effort to better link their jobs and performance to the department’s mission and goals.
“It is very important to the success of NSPS that we ensure our employees, supervisors and leaders fully understand this system, and that they have the tools to succeed in a results-focused, performance-based environment,” said Joyce Frank, a department spokeswoman for the NSPS program. “We are, in fact, including improvements suggested by the unions — to make it simpler and easier to understand.”
But labor leaders say the department’s inability to stay on track exposes major flaws in the design of the system that won’t easily be rectified.
“It is clear that they are not ready to implement such a far-reaching system,” said John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “It was ill-conceived from the start, and we tried to offer sensible recommendations that were fair to government employees. DoD now needs to face the facts, scrap what they have and start over.”
AFGE is one of 10 unions that filed a lawsuit in November to stop the department from rolling out its new personnel system. A federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments in the lawsuit Jan. 24.
In recent months, Defense officials have been testing out training classes and preparing instructors to educate employees, managers and supervisors.
Feedback from those groups, as well as senior leaders and union officials, was that the performance management system needed to be simplified before the training was rolled out.
“Performance management is at the heart of the system, and we want to fix some shortcomings identified by stakeholders up front,” Frank said.
She said NSPS officials are still in the design process and cannot yet describe the changes that will be made.
Personnel specialists in the Navy’s Southeast region, which oversees 48,000 employees in eight Southeastern states and the Caribbean, have completed training and are ready to start training supervisors and employees once they get the go-ahead from Washington, said Pat Dooling, a Navy spokesman based in Jacksonville, Fla.
Dooling said employees he’s spoken to are anxious to see NSPS rolled out, but they aren’t panicking over the latest delay.
“Everybody is just in a sort of ‘wait and see what happens with this’” mode, Dooling said. “People are just curious to see what the new system will look like when it’s finally launched.”
One Navy official, who has been preparing hundreds of employees for performance-based pay, said he fears the initiative is losing steam.
“It’s probably just another one of those initiatives that will go away when the current administration leaves office,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “I think it’s a great idea. But I’m not sure there’s enough will to keep it going for years and years.”
Too ambitious?
NSPS’ Frank rejected the notion by critics that Defense officials were too ambitious initially in their launch plan.
But Comptroller General David Walker, who recently overhauled the pay and performance system at the Government Accountability Office, disagrees.
“They are trying to do too much too fast,” Walker said.
Key lawmakers applauded Defense’s decision to slow down and scale back the rollout.
“Implementation of the new system is dependent on good management, proper execution and robust training,” Senate Government Reform Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, told Federal Times in a statement. “The department’s recent decision to modify its original plan in order to focus on simplifying the performance management system is evidence that the Department of Defense remains committed to an implementation schedule that is event driven.”
Collins’ counterpart in the House, Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., agrees.
“Chairman Davis has repeatedly said that it is more important for DoD to do this right than to do it on schedule,” Davis spokesman Drew Crockett said. “Timeliness is important; doing it right is imperative.”
Under the new timetable, the department will keep to its schedule of handing out performance-based pay raises to the first group of employees in January 2007. However, the second group — which will transition to the new performance appraisal system in October, instead of March or April as previously planned — will not see their performance pay raises until January 2008, a year later than originally planned. The revised schedule delays moving the third group into NSPS from September or October to January 2007. Defense has not yet defined who will be in the second and third groups.
The department still expects to have all three groups, which total about 300,000 employees, paid under the new system by January 2008. In October, Defense said it planned to move the rest of the 650,000 employees to be covered by the new rules — including Wage Grade, National Guard and overseas workers — into the system beginning in mid-2007 and have all employees paid under the system by January 2009.
It’s unclear what impact this latest delay will have on moving those employees into NSPS, although some personnel experts say more delays are likely.
“It’s OK to set aggressive timelines, so long as you understand that those are targets and if things develop you will modify time frames based on changing circumstances,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy and research for the Partnership for Public Service.
Of the 11,000 employees slated to convert to NSPS on April 30, about 3,500 are in human resources positions and the rest are in an array of professional, technical, managerial and supervisory jobs, Frank said. None of the employees is in a bargaining unit. Those chosen to be in the first group moving to NSPS were deemed by their agencies as most ready for the changes, Frank said. She declined to say how they determined that.
Mark Gibson, a labor relations specialist with AFGE, said dropping union workers from the initial rollout will make it easier for the department to pronounce NSPS a success and ignore complaints from employees.
“None of those folks have a voice in the workplace,” Gibson said. “There’s no guarantee their concerns, their criticisms, their corrections, their comments, their suggestions are ever going to filter up.”
Slowdown expected
Many personnel experts and managers applauded the slowdown. They said the worst thing for a large-scale transformational change such as this is to move full steam ahead when feedback suggests re-evaluation.
“We would not want the Department of Defense to rush into this without being absolutely confident that they are as prepared as they can be,” Palguta said. He said he was not surprised by the delay, given the magnitude of changes being put into place by the Pentagon.
Defense managers want a deliberative, thoughtful and careful process of putting NSPS into place, said Thomas Richards, government affairs representative for the Federal Managers Association.
“If that means that Defense needs to take more time developing a training program that’s going to give managers the resources and tools necessary to implement the program, so be it,” Richards said.
The Government Accountability Office urges agencies going through large-scale reforms that the process is at least as important as the eventual result, said Chris Mihm, GAO’s director of strategic issues. That advice is especially important when dealing with personnel issues such as pay and job classification, he said. As a result, Mihm said fixing an overly complicated performance management system is a good reason to go slowly.
“We have found that taking the time to really understand the performance management system, to carefully identify the competencies you want people addressed under, and to correctly link individual to unit to team performance, is time well spent,” he said.
A new performance management system was developed by GAO and put in place two years before anyone’s pay was altered.
“The risk on pay-for-performance schemes [is that] much too early we get to worrying about issues surrounding pay and we don’t give sufficient attention to the driver, which is a better performance management system,” Mihm said.
A lengthy and ongoing communication between leaders and employees has to take place to make large-scale reforms successful, experts say. Employees need the chance to repeatedly digest why changes are occurring, and what the objectives are.
“It takes a while for something like this to sink in to the work force,” Palguta said. “It’s not just about putting people in a training class for a couple days and saying ‘Here is how it all works, now go do it.’”
A string of delays
This delay is just the latest in a series that have plagued NSPS since Congress authorized the Pentagon in November 2003 to revamp its personnel system.
At first, the department was planning to move 300,000 employees into the new system by Oct. 1, 2004, but scrapped that aggressive schedule after receiving intense criticism from unions and lawmakers. A revised schedule, announced in April 2004, had the first round of employees transitioning to the new system in the summer of 2005 and anticipated having up to 300,000 employees enrolled by spring 2006.
Yet another delay, announced in December 2004, called for moving 60,000 employees to the system in July 2005 and covering 300,000 employees by January 2007. Delays in completing final rules for the system forced the department to push back that schedule as well, with conversion of the first group delayed until February 2006.

Minutemen release video
Possible border incursion caught on tape
Kenneth Todd Ruiz, Staff Writer
San Bernardino County Sun

A civilian border patrol group released a video Friday they say shows Mexican soldiers crossing into U.S. territory.
The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps said the 2004 video is an example of the incursions made by the Mexican military during the past 10 years, first reported in The Sun and its sister paper, the Ontario-based Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, on Jan. 15.
"(Minuteman co-founder) Chris Simcox and others were in that area watching for people illegally crossing when they stumbled upon these Mexican soldiers on our side of the border," said Connie Hair, a spokeswoman for the group.
In the video, at least three men in military-style uniforms with automatic weapons run from the border fence toward a Humvee on the Mexican side of the border.
Hair said the incident happened at the border near the San Pedro River in Arizona.
The video appears to show the same incident as captured by at least two cameras.
Simcox was at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday for the screening of a documentary about the border and was unavailable for comment.
According to Hair, Simcox encountered the uniformed men about 500 yards inside the U.S. border but was unable to capture footage until they had crossed back across a fence on the U.S. side of the border.
Since 1996, Mexican soldiers have crossed into the United States 216 times, according to a Department of Homeland Security, Customs and U.S. Border Protection document given to the Bulletin.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday, however, played down reports of the incursions, saying most were a result of lost military personnel or drug runners dressed in military uniforms.
Border agents and law-enforcement personnel interviewed during the past year for the newspapers' Beyond Borders project have described encounters with Mexican military.
"They're operating out of Mexico, and Mexico is not doing anything about it," said T.J. Bonner, union president of the National Border Patrol Council.
With border security a contentious issue on both sides, the U.S. government is motivated by political sensitivity to play down the reports, said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
"Obviously, they don't want to highlight border conflicts," Pitney said. "It's a tense situation, and high-profile conflicts would make the issue even more difficult."
Freddie Puckett, a civilian watching the border near Nogales, Ariz., said Friday he has witnessed Mexican military cross the border as recently as three weeks ago.
"I saw some Mexican Humvees, guys armed with machine guns," he said.
Bonner said the men in the Minuteman video are "definitely Mexican military" and clearly standing inside U.S. territory, which extends a ways past the fence.
But he said the video is not quite a "smoking gun."
"If they had come through the fence, had they gotten the camera working before, it would be a much more compelling video," he said.
Although the men are not wearing any readily identifiable insignia, a former Army counter-intelligence agent confirmed they were military after reviewing the footage Friday.
"If I had to testify in court, there is no question about it," said David DeBatto, the former agent. "That is a Mexican military unit."
At one point in the video, several of the uniformed men return to the fence in a Humvee with a visible serial number.
They approach the fence and converse in Spanish with Simcox and his group, who identify themselves as newspaper reporters.
One of the uniformed men tells them they are uncomfortable with being filmed and said they are there to watch the border.
"We are just working here," says the unidentified, uniformed man in Spanish. "We are just watching the border fringe."
Rafael Laveaga, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., repeatedly denied this past week that Mexico's military has crossed the border and said its protocol is to stay at least a mile away.
Bonner said the video refutes that statement.
"This video does show the Mexican government is lying when they say they tell their troops not to come within a mile within the border," he said.
Hair said Simcox sent the video in 2004 to former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, who never responded.

Sensors along border wasting agents' time
Less than 1% of alerts lead to captures
Mike Madden
Republic Washington Bureau
Jan. 21, 2006 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - U.S. Border Patrol agents are forced to waste time responding to alerts from sensors tripped by animals and passing trains instead of the illegal border crossers and drug smugglers they are designed to catch, a government audit says.

Less than 1 percent of the alerts lead to arrests, but officials maintain the technology still has value.

"Despite claims that (the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System) prevents (Office of Border Patrol) agents from having to respond to false alarms, the analysis indicates that OBP agents are spending many hours investigating legitimate activities, primarily because sensors cannot differentiate between illegal activity and legitimate events," according to the report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General.
Millions spent on system
The government has spent more than $429 million since 1997 on technology systems designed to help secure the border, and Homeland Security officials are preparing to solicit bids from private contractors sometime this year for a new $2.5 billion system.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, did not return a call for comment on the audit.

In a response attached to the audit, the agency's acting commissioner, Deborah Spero, said the Bush administration agreed with the report's recommendation to find ways to measure how the technology helps agents.

But officials objected to its "negative" tone.

Critics outside government and several internal reports have raised questions about how the money for technology has been spent and whether all the equipment works the way it is supposed to.

A study last year found incomplete installation, shoddy equipment, poor management and inflated costs for installing cameras along the Southwestern border.
Patrol investigation
In the audit, released in mid-December, investigators looked at every alert generated by remote sensors, cameras and observation by people during five 24-hour periods last April and May in three Border Patrol sectors in the Southwest: Tucson, and El Paso and Laredo, Texas, and three along the Canadian border.

The sensors, which are hidden or buried along major smuggling routes near the border, detect seismic vibrations triggered when something passes by.

They cost $3,500 each. Remote cameras, which can scan the area near sensors, aren't set up to automatically look at a sensor that sets off an alert, so Border Patrol technicians must point cameras at them manually.
Comparing sensors
On the Mexican border, sensors sounded 29,710 alerts, one every 44 seconds, on average. Agents couldn't even determine what caused the alerts 62 percent of the time, either because technicians didn't pass information on to a field agent fast enough, because no agent was available to investigate it, or because it took agents too long to reach the sensor.

With sensors deployed in remote locations in the desert, response times can vary depending on how far away the nearest Border Patrol station is.

Of the incidents agents investigated, 90 percent were caused by something other than illegal activity, like a passing car, a train or an animal. Only 252 incidents, less than 1 percent of all the sensor alerts, led agents to apprehend people crossing the border illegally.

Auditors said it was possible some of the alerts agents couldn't investigate were triggered by illegal activity. But, they said, that was unlikely because of the high rate of false alarms in cases with known causes.

The results on the Canadian border weren't much better, with false alarms generating 92 percent of the 2,077 alerts by sensors.
Border cameras at work
In the Southwest, cameras performed better, with 57 percent of the 155 incidents captured on video in the Southwest leading to apprehensions, and only 1 percent turning out to be a false alarm.

Likewise, of the 780 observations by people, whether vehicle stops, aerial observation, Border Patrol surveillance or citizen tips, 49 percent led to apprehensions, though 40 percent were false alarms.

Homeland Security officials say the technology helps secure the border by pointing agents to trouble spots, letting the Border Patrol cover more ground with fewer people.

But the report said more agents and technicians should be added to respond to computerized alerts.

Investigators also found that there wasn't any way to judge whether the sensors make the Border Patrol more effective and recommended that officials develop standards to evaluate the system.

"Sensors have always been just one arrow in the quiver, one tool that the Border Patrol has," said Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., whose Tucson district runs along the border.

"It's still a tool that helps. If it actually hinders, we better look fairly seriously at it."

Border Patrol agents get used to chasing down false leads as part of the job, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing about 10,000 agents in the field.

Bonner said he once was sent to investigate alerts triggered by a sensor placed on a railroad track in the desert, which contracted at night when temperatures plunged, rattling the sensor as if something had moved nearby.

The technology can be useful but shouldn't be relied on too heavily, he said.

"You know that something's moving around there. It could be a cow, it could be a coyote, not the two-legged variety, or it could be people," Bonner said.

"We're not Luddites, by any stretch of the imagination, but by the same token we recognize that it takes a human being to catch a human being."
'No silver bullet'
Security technology experts said no piece of equipment, on its own, will stop illegal immigration.

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