AFGE looks to block Cyber Command reserve program in NDAA

A proposed amendment to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act to pilot a cybersecurity reserve force at the Department of Defense would weaken merit systems principles, according to the largest federal employee union.

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The American Federation of Government Employees came out against a proposed cyber reserve pilot program in a Wednesday letter to House Rules Committee leaders.

The pilot program, based in U.S. Cyber Command, will be put forth in a floor amendment proposed by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) when the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act comes up for debate.

Under the reserve program, cybersecurity experts could be noncompetitively appointed into competitive service positions or appointed to excepted service positions for up to 180 days to respond to significant cyber incidents.

AFGE National President Everett Kelley wrote on Sept. 15 that the plan would weaken merit systems principles, erode civilian control over DOD and demoralize the existing civilian cybersecurity workforce.

The union has been on guard of late about DOD seeking personnel flexibilities.

"The perspective of Department of Defense leadership has consistently been one of seeking and obtaining exemptions from the government-wide processes administered by the Office of Personnel Management that are intended to ensure an apolitical civil service," wrote Kelley in a May letter to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks.

The new pilot under consideration would cap the number of appointees in the system at 50. While they're working, they'd be considered feds. Current executive branch employees and members of the selected reserve wouldn't be eligible to participate.

The union argued that the 150-day deployment timeframe might not give reserve members long enough at the agency to be helpful and would be "highly disruptive to the permanent workforce."

"When they have to effectively train temporary civilian reservists on what the problem is, while the reservist waltzes in and out of the agency while the permanent staff are stuck with dealing with the longer-term problem," Kelley wrote.

Kelley also raised questions about potential conflicts of interest, calling for additional public disclosure requirements in the bill.

"A major motive inducing a profit-based company to agree to losing an employee for something like this is to keep these projects temporary and to get some inside information from the government to enhance competitive advantage," he wrote.

The proposed pilot isn't the only system using exceptions to the standard competitive hiring process with the goal of bringing in cyber talent in a tight market.

Panetta and other lawmakers have proposed a bill to let the Department of Homeland Security and DOD create temporary civilian cyber reserves made of former feds and military personnel for details up to six months. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reported it out of the committee unanimously in July.

DHS is also working on standing up an entire new personnel system for cyber talent, its Cybersecurity Talent Management System. Feds hired into it will be in the excepted service.

The union's concerns with the potential DOD pilot, and its criticisms of "misused exceptions to Title 5 and lax OPM oversight" also apply to DHS, said John Anderson, an AFGE lobbyist.

It isn't yet clear if DHS employees hired under CTMS will be able to organize and bargain. Jeff Neal, a former top human resources officer at multiple federal agencies, told FCW that "unless they decide that certain positions are exempted for national security reasons, the language indicates Chapter 71 [the Labor Relations statute] applies and the employees can organize."