Turbulent Times for Civilian Defense Workers

By Sandra I. Erwin

Photo: iStock

Civilian employees of the Defense Department are starting to come to terms with a new reality. Significant new policies — some initiated by the Trump administration and others by Congress — are being put in place and rattling the status quo. 

In a major policy shift, the Pentagon on Jan. 26 unveiled a new process for deciding who gets laid off when “reductions in force” are required. Per congressional mandate, performance will be used as the “primary retention factor.” This marks a dramatic departure from current provisions that base retention on tenure, veteran’s preference, length of service and performance, in descending order.

The new process was signed into law in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, and affects the entire cadre of defense civilians, or about 750,000 employees. The intent was to prevent the Pentagon from letting go high-performing workers in across-the-board downsizing drills. 

The overhaul in RIF procedures was announced just three days after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that freezes federal hiring across the entire U.S. government, setting off concerns within the Pentagon and across the federal workforce about what all this bodes for the future. 

Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the new policy that protects the most valuable people from the budget axe should not be read as an omen of impending layoffs. “These are changes in response to the 2016 NDAA,” Davis said. “To be clear, RIFs happen all the time, at the local levels, at the installation levels, at individual commands.” All this new policy does is change the process for how senior leaders go about determining who gets cut when reductions must be done. “Our civilian workforce is one of our most important assets,” said Davis. “There are, unfortunately, times when the department must make difficult decisions, and in doing so it’s imperative that we continue to execute our national security missions.”

The law requires that when reductions must happen, the determination of employee terminations be made primarily on the basis of performance. The NDAA also extends the “probationary period” before civilians are hired to two years and allows military departments to extend probationary periods. This allows managers more time to assess new hires and extends by one year their authority to fire poorly performing employees.
Seeking to ease anxiety, the Pentagon stated it will “continue to consider every reasonable action to mitigate the size of reductions, including the use of voluntary early retirement authority or voluntary separation incentive payment, hiring freezes, termination of temporary appointments, and any other pre-RIF placement options.”

Trump’s Jan. 23 executive order, meanwhile, mandates a hiring freeze for federal agencies as the administration considers options for downsizing the workforce over the long term. The policy bans all executive branch agencies from filling vacant positions as of Jan. 22, 2017. Military personnel are exempted. Some exceptions could be made for civilians, however. “The head of any executive department or agency may exempt from the hiring freeze any positions that it deems necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.” The director of the Office of Personnel Management also could grant exemptions in special cases. 

The Office of Management and Budget and OPM were given 90 days to draw up plans to shrink the federal workforce through attrition.

These personnel moves by the administration have drawn stern rebukes from members of Congress, federal employee unions and others who worry about the ramifications of a draconian hiring freeze on agency morale and ability to fulfill their missions. 

Advocates of defense reform for years have called specifically on the Pentagon to rebalance its civilian bureaucracy and free up resources to shore up military personnel. The defense workforce is “bloated in some areas yet stretched thin in others,” said national security analyst Mackenzie Eaglen, in an April report by the American Enterprise Institute. Rather than “whack-a-mole” cuts, the Defense Department should take a holistic look at its civilian talent, and reallocate resources, Eaglen suggested. “While federal defense civilians form the backbone of the Pentagon’s day-to-day operations, an unnecessarily large civilian workforce is detracting from the Pentagon’s raison d’être: the production and employment of hard combat power in the service of deterring and winning wars.” 

Civilians should be “realigned with care,” Eaglen noted. “Hiring freezes and across-the-board reductions at headquarters and agencies, such as the effort announced in March 2016, simply give the appearance of action while lowering morale.”

One of the biggest impediments to “right-sizing” the defense civilian workforce,” she said, is the unwillingness of Congress to authorize a new round of base closures. The Air Force and Army estimate that they currently carry 32 percent and 33 percent excess infrastructure, respectively. Without a new base closure round, it will remain difficult to downsize the workforce.

Topics: Defense Department

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