Earth to NASA

September 1, 2002

What a difference a change of jobs makes. When he was the president’s deputy budget director last year, Sean O’Keefe told federal managers that they already had plenty of flexibility to fix their antiquated personnel systems. Why fight for new laws, he argued, when existing laws let agencies do whatever they want.

Now that he’s the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, O’Keefe has changed his mind. He has asked Congress for sweeping authority to bypass the current personnel system. Testifying before the House Science Committee last month, O’Keefe still argued that many of the solutions to NASA’s human capital crisis could be solved with existing authority. But he acknowledged that his troubled agency also needs legislative help. Noting that an “agency is only as strong as its people,” O’Keefe described a set of inexorable trends that will batter his workforce as its employees retire in droves over the coming decade.

The interest of college students in engineering, earth sciences, math and the physical sciences has fallen by a fifth or more since 1992, while aerospace is plummeting as a career of choice.

Competition with the private sector is increasing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects employment in science and engineering to increase three times faster than the rest of the labor market over the next decade.

NASA faces a special problem attracting minority employees, largely because minority students are underrepresented in the science and engineering fields.

O’Keefe acknowledged that his workforce is in trouble. Like most federal agencies, NASA was cut to ribbons by the random downsizing of the 1990s. The agency lost almost 25,000 workers to the “drive-by shootings” encouraged by Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to reinvent government. “Inevitably, we lost some individuals with skills we couldn’t afford to lose,” O’Keefe told the House, “and now those skills need to be replaced.”

NASA is almost sure to continue losing skills unless it acts soon. A quarter of the NASA workforce will be eligible for retirement by 2005. In its scientific and engineering workforce,employees older than 60 outnumber those under 30 by nearly 3-to- 1. At the Ames Research Center, which is developing the nation’s fastest computers, the ratio is 5-to-1.

Even when NASA finds talented recruits, the sell is much harder than it used to be. NASA now pays recruitment bonuses to one out of five new employees. Hard as it is for a former budget hawk to admit it, O’Keefe recognizes that his agency will have to spend money, perhaps lots of it, to get its share of talent. NASA also will have to spend money to keep it. The agency doled out 38 retention bonuses in 2001, O’Keefe said, which exceeds the number distributed in the previous four years combined.

But NASA cannot succeed on its own. It must have help from Congress. If O’Keefe gets his way, NASA will get the chance to build a personnel system as advanced as its rocketry. For example, he wants to abandon the government’s antiquated “rule of three” hiring system, which restricts the process to the three candidates at the top of a needlessly complicated evaluation process. O’Keefe favors a system that would give managers a longer list of candidates. He also wants to increase NASA’s recruitment, relocation and retention bonuses; the authority to give 10 senior executives much higher salaries than allowed under current law; and the option to offer selected employees buyouts and early retirement packages.

Most importantly, O’Keefe wants permission from Congress to build a faster, more flexible personnel system that would also be more sensitive to performance. Under the current system, employees advance regardless of performance. Roughly 80 percent of all pay increases are based on either seniority or inflation and are automatic with the passage of time, while just 20 percent are based on performance. Under O’Keefe’s proposal, NASA would almost certainly move to the same kind of multi-level pay system now used to great effect at the General Accounting Office. That system gives managers more freedom to reward performance, pay competitive salaries, and move high-performing employees up the ladder quickly.

O’Keefe’s plan drew immediate fire from members of Congress who worry that he would use the new flexibilities to downsize the space agency into insignificance. Lawmakers are right to remember his strong support for the administration’s arbitrary campaign to push jobs out to the private sector, but wrong to confuse him with his acerbic former boss, Mitch Daniels.

At least until Congress reforms the civil service system as a whole, O’Keefe ought to get the benefit of the doubt. When he says NASA cannot survive without this kind of help, Congress should believe him. NASA cannot be expected to maintain its scientific and technological edge with a personnel system designed for a workforce that grew up riding in biplanes and driving model T’s