Federal Times Blogs

Rasmussen poll: Just 7% think government employees work hardest

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The polling firm Rasmussen’s latest survey results are certain to give federal employees heartburn. Only 7 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed by phone last week said they think government employees work harder than private sector workers. A whopping 70 percent felt private sector employees worked harder.

The numbers don’t improve a great deal even when government workers’ responses are isolated. About 17 percent of government employees felt they worked hardest, and 44 percent thought private sector workers were more diligent.

The survey questions just asked about generic government workers, not specifying federal, state or local employees.

Rasmussen found that 56 percent of respondents felt the average government workers earned more than private sector employees, though that’s down slightly from the 61 percent who felt that way a year ago. And there’s a sizeable difference of opinion on that question: two-thirds of private sector workers felt government employees earned more. But only one-third of government employees thought they got the better end of the deal.

Rasmussen also released a survey March 15 that found 26 percent of adults felt that laying off 100,000 federal employees would help the economy, and 49 percent thought it would hurt matters. 66 percent of likely voters favored a plan to cut the federal payroll by 10 percent over the next decade.

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OMB explores open source for IT Dashboard

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Following criticisms about inaccurate cost ratings and scheduling information on a White House website, the Office of Management and Budget is turning to software developers for help.

On Thursday, OMB released the software code used to develop the IT Dashboard for two reasons, federal chief information office Vivek Kundra announced in a blog post

“First, to take the platform to the next level, we want to tap into the collective talents and ingenuity of the American people, to enhance functionality, improve the code and address existing challenges such as those identified by David Powner and his team at GAO,” Kundra said. He added that CIOs from the Netherlands, West Virginia, Chicago  and around the world “are all interested in implementing these platforms in their respective organizations.”

OMB launched the IT Dashboard in 2009 to inform the public about the performance of hundreds of large IT projects, but a recent Government Accountability Office report only added to the growing skepticism of the accuracy of such transparency websites. GAO said agencies’ IT managers failed to post project baseline changes or they posted erroneous information. Also, the dashboard’s calculations of some data contributed to the problem.

“Software developers will be able to collaborate, identify errors, develop enhancements, and recommend improvements to the Dashboard, and find new uses for it that we have not even imagined,” Kundra said. He went one to say, “opening up the inner workings of the Dashboard by releasing the code and the TechStat toolkit is only a first step.”

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Fed Times on the air: 737 of 1.2M feds denied raises for poor performance

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Just 737 out of more than 1.2 million General Schedule employees were denied their step increases and accompanying raises for poor performance in 2009, as Federal Times’ exclusive investigation found. Senior writer Stephen Losey talked on Monday with Capital Insider’s Morris Jones about what this shows about the government’s performance management problems:


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Social Security Administration halts mailing of benefit statements because of budget crunch

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The federal financial crunch has claimed another casualty: As of Tuesday, the Social Security Administration is no longer sending out annual earnings and benefits statements to millions of Americans, according to an internal notice.

“Effective immediately, SSA is suspending the mailing of all Social Security statements because of the current budget situation,” the notice says. The online service for requesting a statement has also been disabled, the notice continues. Nor can the public use Form SSA-7004 to make a request.

Indeed, type “statement” into the search engine on the Social Security Administration’s web site, and you’ll end up at a page advising that because of the budget situation, “we have suspended issuing Social Security statements.”  But don’t fear: “You may be able to estimate your retirement benefit using our online Retirement Estimator,” the agency adds.

Like other federal agencies, SSA is generally operating at last year’s spending levels because Congress has failed to agree on a budget for this fiscal year.  So far, however, the impasse appears to have hit America’s favorite retirement program harder than most. Last July, Commissioner Michael Astrue ordered a partial hiring freeze. Earlier this month, the agency announced an end to most employee overtime. In congressional testimony earlier this month, Astrue put the cost of printing and mailing the statements at about $70 million.

[Updated at 1:50 p.m. on March 30 to reflect the yearly costs associated with the statements.]

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Postal Service looking to streamline post office closing process

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Brace for a brouhaha: The U.S. Postal Service is seeking more freedom to close post offices with a package of sure-to-be-controversial proposals coming out in Thursday’s Federal Register.

The half-dozen proposed rules changes will help the struggling mail carrier “responsibly address issues pertaining to declining mail volume, customer demand and revenue shortfalls,” USPS spokeswoman Sue Brennan said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “We look forward to the 30-day comment period,” she added.

The proposals are already available online and postal officials have scheduled a Thursday media briefing to further explain the new approach. One can presume, however, that their overarching goal is to make it easier to prune a vast retail network that isn’t shrinking nearly as fast as as mail volume.

At present, for example, the Postal Service is barred from closing post offices solely to save money. Although the new proposal doesn’t appear to explicitly end that prohibition, it would allow postal officials to look at shuttering facilities suffering from “insufficient customer demand” or where communities have other ways of reasonably getting postal services.

Even before the proposed changes are officially public, however, resistance is already afoot. Mark Strong, president of the National League of Postmasters, said Tuesday that his organization will be strongly opposed. Also upset is the Association of United States Postal Lessors, which represents landlords who rent space to the Postal Service.

If “this change is adopted, we can anticipate that nearly all of rural post offices will disappear in no time and a significant number of postal stations located in lower- income areas of cities and towns will also disappear rapidly,” Mario Principe, the association’s director of lessor affairs, said in a statement.

Particularly interesting to parse will be the reaction from Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are perhaps the biggest single roadblock to closing post offices, which are often cherished–albeit money-losing–community institutions. But prominent House Republicans are now insisting that the Postal Service get its finances in order, in part by clamping down on employee pay and benefits.  Will lawmakers be similarly hard-nosed when it comes to politically valuable postal real estate?

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AFGE, VA sign collective bargaining agreement

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The American Federation of Government Employees and the Veterans Affairs Department today signed a new collective bargaining agreement that seeks to expand employees’ teleworking opportunities.

The national contract — which will cover more than 200,000 bargaining unit employees — also will increase protections for health care workers who are exposed to on-the-job hazards while treating wounded soldiers, AFGE said in a statement. It also clarifies employees’ rights and protections and calls for creating new training programs so employees can learn new skills, obtain new certifications and advance in their careers.

“This is a morale booster for our employees,” AFGE National President John Gage said. “A good contract behind our workers gives them the incentive to do their best work.”

This is the first master contract between AFGE and VA since 1997.

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DeMint: Strip feds’ collective bargaining

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Sen. Jim DeMint (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The collective bargaining battles that began in Wisconsin may be about to come to federal employees’ doorstep. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., told the blog ThinkProgress this weekend that he doesn’t think federal employees should have any collective bargaining rights.

Here’s the exchange between ThinkProgress reporter Scott Keyes and DeMint at the Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines, Iowa:

KEYES: Senator, would you like to see some of these bills that we see at a state level curbing the collective bargaining rights of public employees’ unions, would you like to see those on a federal level?

DeMINT: I don’t believe collective bargaining has any place in government.

KEYES: Including at a federal level?

DeMINT: Including at the federal level. That’s what elections are, collective bargaining, for people who are [inaudible]. I think it just doesn’t make sense. When we’re elected as representatives, to determine the fiscal condition of the government, then to have an unelected third party bargaining at the table with monopoly power, it just doesn’t make any sense.

Keyes correctly notes that most federal employees, except for those at the U.S. Postal Service and a few others, cannot collectively bargain over pay and benefits — just working conditions. DeMint and many other Senate Republicans last month unsuccessfully tried to scuttle plans to extend limited collective bargaining rights to Transportation Security Administration employees on security grounds.

DeMint earlier this year also proposed a five-year pay freeze for federal employees.

Video after the break. Read the rest of this entry »

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Fed Times on the air: Step increases for (almost) all!

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I’ll be appearing on the TV show Capital Insider this evening to discuss the government’s inability to hold poor performers accountable. As we reported last week, only 737 out of more than 1.2 million General Schedule employees had their step increases and accompanying pay raises withheld for reasons of poor performance.

Critics of the GS system say this is a clear sign that the government has a hard time disciplining people who can’t or won’t improve, and think the system needs a radical overhaul.

And I’m still interested in hearing from managers about this issue. If you’d like to share your thoughts on what is wrong with the government’s performance accountability culture, e-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com.

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Health and Human Services to follow new nutritional guidelines

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Employees at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) may start noticing changes in their cafeteria menus.

New nutrition guidelines at HHS will emphasize healthier foods and environmentally friendly procurement and disposal practices according to a blog post on LetsMove.gov written by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and GSA Administrator Martha Johnson March 24.

The new guidelines are part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to encourage healthier eating and regular exercise and are part of an effort by GSA to extend sustainable food practices government wide.

Some of the new dining guidelines include:

Offering seasonal vegetables and fruits, as well as whole grain options such as pasta.

Vegetarian and lean meat entrees.

Low-fat milks, yogurts and cottage cheeses as well as 100 percent fruit juice and freely available drinking water.

Foods that are low in sodium and also free of synthetic trans fats.

But the new guidelines also lay out sustainability guidelines for food procurement and environmentally friendly dining.

Federal workers should be offered incentives for using reusable beverage containers. Vendors should use compostable and bio-based trays, flatware, plates and bowls.

The guidelines also suggest offering food that is organically, locally or sustainably grown and labeled as such.

ONC seeks feedback on health IT strategic plan

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David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (photo by ONC)

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology wants to know what you think about its four-year strategic plan for health IT.

The plan isn’t entirely new but rather updates an earlier version ONC released in June 2008. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act requires ONC to revise and republish that plan. ONC will accept public comments through April 22.

“The adoption and meaningful use of EHRs is the unifying focal point of our strategy,” said National Coordinator for Health IT David Blumenthal. ”However, meaningful use is necessary, but not sufficient, to harness the power of health IT to transform health care over the next five years. For instance, we must continue to be attentive to implementing and enforcing privacy and security protections.”

While most of the plan reiterates well-known health IT topics like the Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Record Program, Blumenthal highlights new aspects of the plan:

1. The health information exchange strategy in Goal I focuses on first fostering exchange that is already happening today, supporting exchange where it is not taking place, and creating means for exchange between local initiatives.

2. Goal IV recognizes the importance of engaging and empowering individuals with electronic health information in order to move to patient-centered care, and proposes strategies for doing so.

3. In Goal V, we develop a clear vision and path forward for building a “learning health system,” work that will become increasingly prominent over the next several years.