Federal Times Blogs

Postal Service loses bid for slowdown on rate case appeal

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In the context of the U.S. Postal Service’s zillion or so other problems, this one doesn’t loom very large, but the mail carrying agency has struck out in its bid for a stay in proceedings on the exigent rate case that began last year. In an order released today, the Postal Regulatory Commission said the case is “now ready to proceed,” and rejected the Postal Service’s request for the stay until Dec. 15.

This case dates back to July 2010, when the Postal Service sought approval for a package of rate increases that would have boosted the price of a first-class stamp from 44 to 46 cents. After the PRC uanimously rejected the proposed hikes in September 2010, the Postal Service appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

In a highly technical ruling this May, the court basically upheld the commision’s decision, but asked it to explain how closely the amount of the proposed exigent rate increases had to match the amount of revenue lost because of exigent circumstances (in the Postal Service’s telling, those circumstances are a recession-related drop in mail volume).

The Postal Service went on to ask for the Dec. 15 delay on the grounds that proposed legislation would allow it to proceed with rate increases above the inflation rate anyway. In addition, an Obama administration proposal would let Congress impose the exigent increases without the PRC’s concurrence.

But mailing industry organizations were opposed. In today’s ruling, the commission noted that “the results of pending legislation are highly speculative,” adding that there is no guarantee that any of the bills cited by the Postal Service will be enacted by year’s end.


Subpoenas spark change in agencies’ small business leadership

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A House committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday has been cancelled after agencies that were subpoenaed to testify about their refusal to put senior leadership in charge of their small business contracting activities decided to reorganize instead.

On Oct. 20, House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves issued subpoenas to the Treasury, State, Justice and Agriculture departments, requiring their deputy secretaries attend a Nov. 1 hearing to discuss their noncompliance with the federal Small Business Act. 

The four agencies had previously refused to change the organizational structure of their Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU), which, according to the federal Small Business Act, is supposed to be in direct contact with the agency’s secretary or deputy secretary. The agencies said they were compliant with the spirit of the law by either putting their OSDBU director under less senior officials or had less senior administrators do day-to-day activities.

On Friday, State, Agriculture and Justice officials told the Small Business Committee that they would comply and change their reporting structure to give OSDBU access to the deputy secretary or secretary, a committee spokesman said. The committee is still in discussion with the Treasury Department, the spokesman said.

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On Halloween, don’t let an outlandish costume derail your career

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Dressing up in silly and sometimes-outrageous costumes is part of the fun of Halloween. But the federal employment law firm Tully Rinckey today reminds feds not to let things get too out of hand when suiting up for the office costume party. Feds who go for shock value with their costumes could end up jeopardizing their careers, said attorney John Mahoney:

In an effort to have the best costume, many people get pretty risque or even insensitive with their choice of garb. As explosive and instant as social media has gotten, these photos taken at such parties can be published online in a matter of seconds. Federal employees must be especially careful because they can be, and most often times are, charged with conduct unbecoming of a federal employee. The charge is very broad and supervisors love to use it because it’s easy to prove.

Which means if you act the fool at the party, your boss is likely to choose someone else for that next promotion — or could even get you fired if you step too far out of line.

It’s happened several times in recent years. An offensive costume almost killed former Immigration and Customs Enforcement head Julie Myers’ confirmation, even though she wasn’t wearing it. (At an ICE Halloween party in 2007, an employee dressed in a black-and-white striped prison jumpsuit, wore a dreadlocked wig and darkened his skin to look black. Myers was one of three judges who dubbed his costume “most original” and posed for a picture with him. Myers’ nomination was quickly put on hold when the photo leaked, but the Senate soon confirmed her.)

And just last week, photos surfaced from the 2010 Halloween party of a major “foreclosure mill” law firm that showed employees dressed up like homeless people or foreclosed homeowners. The law firm of Steven L. Baum denied that its employees dress up in a way that mocks people who have lost their homes, but the pictures sparked outrage toward the firm across the internet.

So if your costume is likely to be featured on one of those “We’re a culture, not a costume” posters, you may want to rethink it — or at least not wear it to the office.

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Obama administration to boost tech transfers

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The Obama administration plans to boost innovation by increasing the number and pace of federal technology transfers over a five year period.

In an Oct. 28 memo to agency and department heads, President Obama set an April deadline for agencies and federal labs to develop performance goals for increasing technology transfers to private sector and research organizations and improving ”public availability of federally owned inventions.”

These plans, which will cover 2013 to 2017, will be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review. 

In fiscal 2009, federal labs at 11 agencies — including Veterans Affairs and Agriculture departments — disclosed 4,422 new inventions to outside entities and held 10,913 active licenses for federal lab technologies, according to a National Institutes of Standards and Technology report.

Granting licenses to develop and commercialize government technologies allows these inventions to further develop into products and services, the report said.

The federal chief information officer and technology officer and assistant to the president will work with agencies to list all publicly available, government-owned inventions and “develop strategies to increase the usefulness and accessibility of this data, such as competitions, awards or prizes.”


A footnote to the FAA furloughs

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One of the oddities of this summer’s partial Federal Aviation Administration shutdown was that the agency would never say exactly how many employees were furloughed as a result. “Nearly 4,000” was the stock phrase used by FAA officials, who refused to provide a more precise figure.

Not clear why they were so coy (this is supposed to be the most transparent administration in American history, after all), but FedLine’s curiosity was piqued, a Freedom of Information Act request was filed and the answer came back late last month: 3,750. The estimated cost in lost payroll for the two-week furlough (and the FAA, to be fair, had previously released an approximate figure) was $20.2 million.

The partial shutdown occurred in July and August after Congress failed to approve a short-term funding extension and then left town for its August break.  After taking a pounding from administration officials and in the media, lawmakers soon got the agency fully back to work; the latest extension now runs until the end of January.  And while Congress never acted on legislation to provide back pay for those furloughed employees, that turned out to be a moot point after Transportation Department lawyers decided that no congressional approval was needed.



Work of inspectors general lauded

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Who says that government work is dull? The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency recently held its 14th annual awards ceremony and the range of honorees gives some idea of the breadth of the assignments carried out by departmental and special watchdogs.

The winner of the Alexander Hamilton Award, for example, was the Bridge Safety Improvement Team at the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General, which was saluted for “significant contributions” to bridge safety through improvements to federal and state inspections and other oversight activities.  The Sentner Award for Dedication and Courage went to a group at the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for its audit work in ensuring that $11.4 billion of construction money was spent effectively. And a Health and Human Services Department IG team was recognized for providing expert technical assistance to Congress throughout the debate on the health care overhaul approved last year.

Here’s a link to the full program for last week’s ceremony, which was keynoted by Attorney General Eric Holder.



Security organization honors feds and contractors

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Redacting sensitive information in agency documents used to be a 15-step process at the Transportation Security Administration.

That was until a poorly redacted document was posted online in 2009. The incident prompted Emma Garrison-Alexander, TSA’s assistant administrator for information technology, to create standard document redaction tools and procedures agencywide. The feature is now an automated tool also available to private users of Adobe Acrobat Professional software.

“We have to ensure that we’re securing data and networks,” Garrison-Alexander said after being honored at ISC2′s Government Information Security Leadership Awards.

Garrison-Alexander was among several federal employees and contractors honored last week. Read more about other winners here.


Army HR specialists vote to stay with AFGE

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More than 1,400 civilian human resources specialists at the Army Human Resources Command have voted to stay with the American Federation of Government Employees.

The specialists voted 302-81 earlier this month to join AFGE. The newly-consolidated employees were transferred from three other locations to Fort Knox, Ky., as part of the Base Realignment and Closure process. The employees were represented by AFGE at their former locations in Alexandria, Va., Indianapolis, and St. Louis, Mo., but the Federal Labor Relations Authority ordered a new election to see if they wanted to remain with the union.

FLRA is expected to certify the results Nov. 1.

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GAO: Federal IT budget far more than $79 billion

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A review of federal information technology investments found that agencies spend far more than the $79 billion reported on the government’s web-based IT tracking system, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

The IT Dashboard only provides investment data for 26 agencies, the report noted. The website does not include spending data for 61 other agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Central Intelligence Agency and legislative and judicial branch agencies.

OMB encourages small agencies to use the IT Dashboard, but they choose not to, according to the GAO report released Wednesday.

While administration officials often quote $79 or $80 billion as the entire federal IT spend for fiscal 2011, GAO highlighted instances where agencies accounted for some IT systems in their overall IT budget but excluded others. GAO blamed the inconsistencies on the Office of Management and Budget’s murky guidance for how agencies should report IT investments and identify and categorize them.

OMB defines IT as any equipment used to automate various processes, such as acquisition and storage, or equipment used to receive and transmit data and information.

OMB officials said they give “agencies the flexibility to determine what to include as an IT investment, and agencies have chosen to interpret the definition of IT in different ways,” the report said.

“As a result, the nation’s actual annual investment in IT is much higher than the $78.8 billion identified by agencies” GAO said.

For example, in its IT budget submission to OMB the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration included only $181 million of the $382 million budget for its Joint Polar Satellite System and $215 million of the $690 million budgeted for its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series.

GAO said NOAA excluded “at least $676 million in IT-related development” on the IT Dashboard for the two systems.

Currently, the Dashboard tracks the performance and budget of for about 828 major IT investments and provides some details on more than 6,000 other IT investments.

GAO recommendations to OMB include: 

- Clarify its guidance to agencies for reporting IT investments and specify which systems should be included.

- Revise guidance to agencies for categorizing IT investments.

- Specify which executive branch agencies are accounted for when referring to federal IT spending.

OMB said the IT dashboard already clarifies which agencies are included in the $79 billion investment total and that existing guidance tells agencies how to identify IT investments. But OMB did agree that its guidance to agencies does not address key categories for IT investments like space systems and whether they should be accounted for.



Moving to cheaper health care plans? We want to hear from you

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Federal employees have endured several years of steep hikes to their health care premiums. Has this prompted you to switch health care plans, perhaps to a cheaper alternative? Or are you trying out high-deductible health plans, or consumer-driven health plans?

We’d like to hear from you, and why you’re switching health plans. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk.

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