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241 post offices remain on updated closure list

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The U.S. Postal Service issued another updated list of possible post office closures (pdf) on Friday, and just 241 facilities remain, down from more than 3,300 when the review process started this summer.

Most of the proposed closures are still concentrated in a few states. Florida has the most, with 40; mail volume has fallen faster than the national average in Florida, largely due to the collapse in the housing sector. California and Ohio both have 26 possible closures; Georgia has 17; and Tennessee has 16.

The list still isn’t final. Postmaster General John Potter said last month that he doesn’t expect the closures to begin until at least January; postal officials estimate they will save between $20 million and $100 million per year.

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We’re close to having TSA, OFPP leaders confirmed

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Two critical federal leadership positions may soon be filled.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has unanimously approved Erroll Southers as administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and Daniel Gordon as administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. The committee approved both nominations by voice vote Nov. 19.

It’s unclear whether the Senate will vote on these, or any other nominations, before it recesses sometime next week for Thanksgiving. Both nominees are considered non controversial.

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Grinch of the day: Sex offender kills USPS Santa program for some towns

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Youre a mean one.

You're a mean one.

UPDATE: I just got off the phone with Sue Brennan from the Postal Service, who said the AP report isn’t entirely accurate. The Postal Service isn’t canceling the whole letters to Santa program, but local post offices that don’t have the resources to redact childrens’ addresses and replace them with codes — as is now required by the Postal Service — will have to opt out of the program.

Large cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia can afford the security measures and will still answer letters sent locally that are addressed to Santa. But many small towns, such as North Pole, Alaska, don’t have the money and will have to end their participation in Operation Santa, Brennan said. Los Angeles is one of the few big cities also ending the program, she said.

Original post: This may be one of the saddest stories I’ll read today. The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Postal Service is killing Operation Santa, a 55-year-old program where volunteers answer childrens’ letters sent to Santa Claus with letters postmarked “North Pole, Alaska.” The problem? A sex offender wormed his way into the program last year and almost gained access to childrens’ names and addresses. And rather than jump through the hoops that would be required to completely safeguard kids, the cash-strapped post office decided it’s easier to just scrap the whole thing:

Last year, a postal worker in Maryland recognized an Operation Santa volunteer there as a registered sex offender. The postal worker interceded before the individual could answer a child’s letter, but the Postal Service viewed the episode as a big enough scare to tighten rules in such programs nationwide.

The agency now prohibits volunteers from having access to children’s family names and addresses, said spokeswoman Sue Brennan. The Postal Service instead redacts the last name and addresses on each letter and replaces the addresses with codes that match computerized addresses known only to the post office – and leaves it up to individual post offices if they want to go through the time-consuming effort to shield the information.

Anchorage-based agency spokeswoman Pamela Moody said dealing with the tighter restrictions is not feasible in Alaska.

I remember being thrilled when I got my letter back from Santa Claus when I was a kid, and it’s a shame this one bad apple has ruined the program for everybody.

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A bad day to fly

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News reports are coming in from all over that an FAA computer glitch is snarling airports across the country. This from USA Today’s travel blogger Ben Mutzabaugh:

Some of the first reports of cancellations are coming in now, the results of an FAA computer glitch that is affecting flights this morning. The Associated Press reports “AirTran has canceled 22 flights and dozens more flights have been delayed as of 8 a.m. EST. Delta Air Lines also has suffered.” AP adds “Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, has been particularly affected” by the issue.

CNN reports the FAA computer system affected by the malfunction is centered in Atlanta. “The system — the National Airspace Data Interchange Network, or NADIN — appears to be the same one that failed in August 2008. The FAA said flight plans are being processed through the network’s Salt Lake City, Utah office,” CNN says on its website.

CBS Newsreporter Nancy Cordes has more on the subject via the CBS News website. CBS explains the NADIN “system is located in Atlanta and generates the flight plans for all flights on the East Coast.” She says the glitch is forcing air traffic controllers in the already-congested New York City to space out planes by about 20 miles, instead of the normal eight miles.

CBS adds “the practical ramifications of this problem are that the entire air traffic control system on the East Coast is slowed to about 40-50% of what a normal day would look like. Controllers must input flight data for each takeoff and landing manually.” Stay tuned for updates.

ORIGINAL POST (8:26 a.m. ET on Thursday, Nov. 19): ABC News is reporting that flights are being delayed nationwide by an “unknown computer glitch” within the Federal Aviation Administration. ABC says the issue is not a safety issue, but that it is forcing air traffic controllers to increase the distance between flights – something that effectively reduces an airport’s landing capacity. New York airports, for example, are operating at about 50% of normal capacity during the glitch, ABC says this morning on Good Morning America.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitutionalso picks up on the story, writing “the computer glitch shut down most, if not all, departing flights at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and other airports across the country Thursday morning.” In a statement, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen is quoted by the paper as saying: “We are having a problem processing flight plan information. We are investigating the cause of the problem. We are processing flight plans manually and expect some delays.”

House committee passes domestic partners bill

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After more than five hours of debate, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted 23-12 on H.R. 2517 Wednesday, which would grant federal benefits to same-sex domestic partners of federal employees.

The bill would entitle domestic partners to myriad federal benefits, including medical benefits and long-term care insurance. To receive the benefits, the partner and the federal employee would have to sign an affidavit affirming that they are in a committed, long-term relationship and live together except for financial, work or other reasons.

Votes on the bill were split along party lines. Republicans spent several hours offering a series of amendments, including one to open federal benefits up to anyone living in a federal employee’s home.

The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.

For more on H.R. 2517 and the committee’s debate, check back with Federal Times Thursday.

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RAT board not certifying data it’s not supposed to certify

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Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent a letter on Nov. 13 (pdf) to Earl Devaney, the chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, raising some questions about the stimulus data posted on Recovery.gov. Issa was specifically concerned about the “jobs created/saved” data: The site claims 640,329 jobs have been created or saved, but there’s widespread agreement that figure is wrong.

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One year later, no special counsel

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Something I’ve been wondering lately, both because Barack Obama the presidential candidate said a lot of good things about whistleblowers, and because I spent a not-inconsequential part of 2008 reporting on Scott Bloch: Why hasn’t the White House appointed a new special counsel?

I know President Barack Obama still has hundreds of positions to fill. But the top job at the Office of Special Counsel would seem to be an important one. The agency hasn’t had political leadership since October 2008, when the Bush administration forced Bloch to resign.

OSC employees I’ve talked to generally say the agency needs some reorganization, but William Reukauf, the acting special counsel, told me last year that he planned to act as a caretaker. Reorganization, in other words, would have to wait for political leadership. He told Government Executive in May that the agency is “looking forward anxiously” for a new political leader.

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Government errors could mean big problems for contractors

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Contractors could face suspension, debarment or financial penalties if they fail to return and report an improper payment made by the government…even if the improper payment is the government’s fault.

That’s what an executive order meant to curb the government’s rate of erroneous payments will say, Peter Orszag, Office of Management and Budget director, told reporters during a Nov. 17 briefing on the value of improper payments made by the government in 2009.

Currently, contractors face no penalties when the government discovers an improper payment was made. All contractors have to do is pay back the sum without interest or penalty. The executive order, which will be issued in the coming week, will change that by allowing agencies to suspend, debar and fine contractors that fail to report these payments. That will create strong incentive for contractors to be vigilant in monitoring their government payments, said Danny Werfel, the controller of OMB’s Office of Federal Financial Management.

Werfel said:

The way it works today is if we give a contractor money that they have not earned and they never report it to us, but we just so happen to find it through an audit, all they have to do is make us whole. There are no additional damages on top of that. And that’s what the executive order would pursue as a way of incentivizing contractors to immediately tell us where we made an error, so they’re part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

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The NRC dating service?

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Future NRC engineers? (from CBS Big Bang Theory)

Future NRC engineers? (from CBS' Big Bang Theory)

It seems like everybody’s got a new idea for attracting new talent to the federal government these days. But Jim McDermott, chief human capital officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, thinks he’s found a foolproof way to convince young engineers to come to his agency: Find them dates.

“There are incentives, and then there are incentives,” McDermott told a crowd of human resources officials at the HCMF Conference in Arlington, Va., earlier today. ”When we’re hiring, we say, ‘Is there a significant other in the picture?’ If there’s no significant other, I tell them, ‘We can help.’ ”

McDermott said his unorthodox recruitment pitch works because while nuclear engineers may know how to split atoms, they’re not quite so adept on the dating front:

McDermott

McDermott

“Now, engineers study a lot in college,” McDermott said. “They neglect very important extracurricular activities. My girls went to school with engineers, [and] they said, ‘Dad, they don’t know how to dance, they don’t know how to dress, they don’t even know how to talk.’ ”

Engineers may not necessarily become better dancers by taking a job at NRC, but McDermott said they can meet other single engineers (who probably won’t roll their eyes at Star Trek or lectures on reactor cooling systems). McDermott said NRC’s dating scheme — which he jokingly called “NRC Harmony,” after the eHarmony online dating service — has so far resulted in about eight or nine weddings.

McDermott’s comments made me think of the sitcom Big Bang Theory, which features hopelessly nerdy theoretical physicists and their often-failed efforts to find romance. McDermott said he’s seen bits of the show, which hit close to home: “I thought I was watching something on the NRC.”

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5-day delivery: Depends on your perspective

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Daniel Indiviglio, writing on The Atlantic‘s business blog, looks at the Postal Service’s gloomy FY09 financial results and declares 5-day mail delivery a “reasonable idea.” Then he looks a little further ahead — and predicts 5-day could eventually give way to even less frequent delivery:

Bottom line: it seems that technology will increasingly take the place of postal service in the years to come. This time around, Saturday service may be eliminated. But give it a few more years, and we might see Monday-Wednesday-Friday service. One day, USPS may be eliminated entirely.

Indiviglio casts that as a positive — the Postal Service responding to the changing way Americans use mail (and, increasingly, don’t use mail).

Interestingly, though, I often hear the same argument presented by union leaders and many postal employees as a criticism of 5-day. They view the end of Saturday delivery as a stalking horse for 4-day, 3-day, etc.  And they see it as a negative, both because of its impact on postal workers and because they see it as selling off the agency’s competitive advantage. If the Postal Service doesn’t deliver on Saturdays, they argue, how does it differentiate itself from UPS or FedEx? (The mailbox monopoly, for one…)

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