The Defense Department has begun initial steps to create a new civilian cyber workforce outside the strictures of the traditional civil service system, giving the department more flexibility to hire, fire and pay employees in critical cyber posts.
Congress gave DoD the new personnel authorities as part of the 2016 Defense authorization bill, and on June 24, the department sent to the Hill a required report on how it plans to use them, triggering a 30-day countdown before the Pentagon can actually implement the new system, moving at least some of the civilian workforce into the excepted service — governed by Title 10 of U.S. Code rather than Title 5, which covers most civilian employees.
The law gives the Defense secretary broad authority to hire new cyber workers outside of the usual competitive service process, subjects employees who become part of the system to a three-year probationary period instead of the one year standard for most federal jobs and lets DoD give those workers additional pay and bonuses as a retention incentive.
The law places no cap on how many positions the department can use the new authority for, but DoD is likely to reserve it only for “high-end” cyber positions, said Karl Schneider, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs.
“It’s going to be a phased approach, starting with a small number of people in the headquarters,” he told a forum hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army in Arlington, Virginia, Thursday. “But Congress also wants us to be more aggressive in using the authorities we already have under Title 5. We in the personnel business have not done as good a job as we could of using those. Those include direct hire authority, advance-at-hire so you don’t have to come in at step one and student loan repayments.”
DoD still must publish rules to govern the new excepted service for cyber workers, but in doing so, it intends to borrow heavily from the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System (DCIPS), which covers all of the department’s civilian intelligence employees and emphasizes pay-for-performance.
“In particular, the department is really going to look to the National Security Agency as a model,” Schneider said. “NSA has really used some flexibility in pay setting and supplemental pay to attract cyber and STEM people.”
A new Cyber Workforce Management Board, jointly chaired by the DoD chief information officer, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness and the department’s principal cyber adviser, will oversee and govern the personnel system. Each of the military services also will have seats on the board.
All of the military services now are in the process of examining each of their civilian cyber positions and coding the ones they believe should be included in the new system. Individual workers will have the right to decline their jobs being moved into the excepted service as long as they keep the same positions, but DoD is free to convert any vacant job to the new system.
From there, to fill positions, the department will be able to bypass traditional hiring rules and use a new recruiting process devised by the workforce management board. But Schneider noted that DoD will need to up its civilian recruiting game if it’s going to take advantage of the new authorities.
“Right now, we just post an announcement on USAJobs and then wait and see who comes,” he said. “You can’t get quality people to come work for you by sitting back and waiting. You have to go find them, and what we don’t have on the civilian side is professional recruiters. We don’t have people who go out to work fairs and engineering schools to say, ‘What’s it going to take to get you to work for the U.S. Army?’ We have to have people who know how to do that. We have 10,000 recruiters on the military side to recruit 120,000 soldiers a year. We really have zero recruiters to hire between 16,000 and 20,000 civilians a year.”
The DoD initiative is one of several across the government to expand the civilian cyber workforce. On Monday, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management rolled out the federal government’s first-ever cyber workforce strategy, laying out a series of actions and deadlines to boost the workforce beyond the 6,500 people the government expects to hire this year.
And OPM already has granted several other excepted service hiring authorities meant to speed up the hiring process and make the government more competitive with private sector salaries, covering 3,000 positions in DoD and 1,000 in the Department of Homeland Security.
Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks one-on-one and in depth with the people responsible for managing the inner workings of the federal government's largest department, and those who know it best. Subscribe to the latest episode on PodcastOne or iTunes.