WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has put a civilian hiring freeze in place for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Defense Agencies and Field Activities, Defense News has learned.

The freeze, which went into effect March 20, was ordered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work in a Feb. 23 memo. It affects all vacant full-time and part-time, temporary and permanent civilian positions with no tentative offer presented as of March 19.

The freeze is related to a Ccongressional order to reduce the number of headquarters staff at the Pentagon. As part of the "delayering" process, all personnel need to be reflected in the Fourth Estate Manpower Tracking System (FMTS), an internal DoD accounting system. The goal is to get an accurate picture of current manpower in order to know what spots need to be filled and what can be left alone. 

According to the memo, the hiring freeze will be lifted only once the relevant agency has "Presented its delayering plan to the Senior Review Panel and received approval form the Senior Review Panel or by the Deputy Secretary of Defense; updated its designated major DoD headquarters activates (MHA) authorizations in the Fourth Estate Manpower System (FMTS) in accordance with its approved delayering plan; and updated FMTS for all non-MHA positions funded by direct appropriation." Non-MHA positions funded by revolving funds will need to be updated by June 30, 2016.

The memo does leave an exception for mission critical requirements, and at least one agency head has attempted to make use of it. In an email to staffers, Lt. Gen. Wendy Masiello, Director of the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), said she was "hopeful" DCMA would be able to hire again soon.

"Based on the standard structures already implemented in DCMAO, and the quick turn in Special Programs and International in meeting DoD organizational standards — and getting them into FMTS, I asked for relief from the hiring freeze for our operational teams," she wrote. "We don't have an answer yet, but I am hopeful."

Reductions of Pentagon staff have become a hot issue since a 2013 memo from then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, which directed the services to reduce their headquarters staff by 20 percent. Those reductions were to be overseen by Ash Carter, then the deputy defense secretary and now Hagel's successor as secretary of defense.

In an August 2015 memo, Work increased that reduction target figure from 20 percent to 25 percent. In her email, Masiello noted this reduction will result in the elimination of 146 positions at DCMA.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has made reducing the number of staff positions at the Pentagon a key issue.

During March 22 testimony, Carter and Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord acknowledged that the Hill wants to see the number of headquarters employees drop.

"We have instructions, both internal and from the Congress to hold down civilian [jobs] commensurate with draw down in the military, and we recognize that mandate," McCord said.

A GAO report published in December found the number of DoD’s full-time civilian employees fell by 3.3 percent from 2012 through 2016, civilian FTEs declined by 3.3 percent, but civilian personnel costs declined by only 0.9 percent adjusted for inflation. Under the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, DoD must match the 7 percent reductions on the uniformed side, and it was on track to hit 6.8 percent by 2017, according to the GAO report.

Arnold Punaro, a former Marine Corps major general and Senate Armed Services Committee staff director who has been advocating for a reduction in Pentagon staffing levels for several years, called the freeze a "prudent move" but said more must be done to solve "the longstanding issue of what is the baseline from which you are cutting and what are the real costs of various categories of personnel."

"The Pentagon is expert at saying they reduced the number [of staff], but you find out they just created another 'activity' outside the wire and so real reductions and savings are not realized. And when you have a "rolling" baseline, how do you calculate an accurate percentage?," Punaro wrote in an email to Defense News. "I have argued for years that there should be authorized numbers for OSD, JCS and the other HQ elements just like we do for active duty and guard and reserve end strengths. That is the only true way to control headcount and it would cover all categories — not just defense civilians."

The "good news," he said, is that Work and Deputy Chief Management Office Peter Levine seem dedicated to getting a real baseline staffing figure to work from.

"I don't know how successful they will be, as the bureaucracy typically has been more resilient than the most senior leaders, but we have not had people before who have attacked it this vigorously, obviously with the support of Sec. Carter and the push from Congress," Punaro wrote.

Email: Amehta@defensenews.com | jgould@Defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta | @ReporterJoe

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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