A recent meeting between managers and unionists concerning the Department of Homeland Securities new personnel system, which may serve as a testing ground for systems in the rest of the federal government, displayed labor’s and management’s traditional splits on workplace issues. This signaled what might have been the beginnings of a major struggle, pitting the two against each other for years to come. Not exactly a new position, but this bears close observation by managers and workers alike in all other agencies.

While their remarks were conciliatory and publicly recognized the critical importance of that new agency’s mission, underlying differences emerged and is reflected in the official summary of the meeting that took place in late October.

As might be expected, pay became a focus. Management reps made it clear that their believe that time in grade pay raises were anathema to an agency with such a new mission, effectively reducing the importance of performance. Union leaders, also members of the Senior Review Committee, were quick to call for caution in this regard, saying they want no “radical” change “for change sake.”

According to the report, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, while agreeing that DHS’s mission is critical, “emphasized that it should not be a testing ground for new policies, nor can the country afford to have operations disrupted or managers distracted.”

From the management side, which generally favors performance-based pay progression, came this:

“Options based on the current general schedule, where time in grade is the primary standard for progression, would not meet the needs of DHS. The general opinion of these members was that the GS system was outdated and required substantial modernization, because it was designed originally to meet the needs of a very different federal work force.

“One major flaw of the current system that DHS and Office of Personnel Management members identified was its focus on time-based as opposed to performance-based salary progression.”

As one participant, citing many mission needs put it, DHS needs “flexible, adaptable, responsive systems that reward excellence, eliminate mediocrity, and promote workplace values.” Another, noting that “skills and technologies and initial competencies are changing so rapidly that the fundamental premise underlying the general schedule – that the longer you do a job the better you get – is something I question whether we want to keep in place.”

From the union leaders came this counter:

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that the current system offers performance-based tools that are not used appropriately or frequently enough. For example, she said that the quality step increase (CSI) authority is not used as much as it should be.