Federal Times Blogs

Now in progress: a push to keep (contract) post offices open

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It’s no secret that the U.S. Postal Service is looking at shutting more than 3,200 post offices as part of a major downsizing initiative. Less known is that 20 privately run post offices are also on the chopping block, but in this case because of a labor agreement with the American Postal Workers Union.

Under its latest contract with the APWU signed last year, the Postal Service agreed to close 20 “contract postal units” (CPUs) or else insource the work “as soon as practicable.” Those units are in New York, Texas, Florida,Puerto Rico and several other states. Given that there are more than 3,000 contract postal units nationwide, it’s not clear why these were singled out, but several Republican members of Congress aren’t happy about it.

The 20 CPUs in question provide “handsome levels of revenue” to the Postal Service “in a more cost-effective manner than traditional post office facilities,” Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Steve Southerland, both of Florida, and John Carter and Ted Poe of Texas wrote in a letter earlier this month to Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and APWU President Cliff Guffey. Besides employing more than two dozen people, the units generated an estimated $20 million in revenue last year and are “highly-trafficked businesses that provide their surrounding areas with unparalleled levels of customer service,” they added. The four lawmakers concluded by asking for a review and reconsideration of the decision to close them.

It should come as no surprise that the APWU would prefer to have the work done in-house by career postal workers. It’s not clear, though, whether this is a first-ever arrangement or has some precedent in previous contracts. FedLine’s attempts to get comment from the Postal Service and the APWU were unsuccessful.

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Feds and contractors need to talk more, agencies say

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A handful of agencies are taking steps to improve coordination between program managers, contracting officers and contractors in hopes of delivering less wasteful, more effective IT acquisitions.

The Energy Department, for example, is using a series of agency-wide meetings to share ideas on what’s being bought and what contracts are used in certain information technology arenas, such as mobility, open government and geospatial, Pete Tseronis, the department’s chief technology officer, said at the Acquisition Excellence conference Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Companies can attend the events and network with the agency’s program managers and contracting officers, Tseronis said. But he has heard from contractors who are later bounced between the program office and the contracting officer when they try to get information about upcoming contracts or market their technologies to the agency, he said.

“Government has to fix something about dialogue,” he said. “Otherwise, why do these events?”

Acquisition officials at the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement are trying to improve communication between program managers and contracting officers so they can come up with better statements of work on a contract, said Brent Bushey, an ICE IT program manager. Pressures to award contracts quickly have driven acquisition officers to speed through those early discussions, he said.

“You say you want to go fast, but you have no idea what you’re trying to buy or how to articulate that,” Bushey said.

Government and contractor panelists at the conference, which was hosted by the General Services Administration and American Council for Technology’s Industry Advisory Council, agreed that companies can offer helpful insight to agencies about how best to structure program requirements. But contracting officers are afraid that meeting with a contractor about an upcoming procurement will look bad and give competing companies reason to protest their decisions, officials said.

That fear is a focus of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s campaign last year to encourage contracting officers to communicate with industry, called Mythbusters. Better communication should lead to fewer protests, not more, federal procurement officials said.

About a month ago, OFPP added a “vendor collaboration” link to the Federal Business Opportunities website where agencies post contract notices. The new link directs contractors to pre-solicitiation opportunities, such as requests for information and agency industry days.

OFPP is also planning a follow-up to the Mythbusters campaign that will focus more on issues faced by the contractor community, OFPP acting administrator Lesley Field said during the conference.

Readers, how would you describe communication between federal program and contracting offices? What about between the government and industry? Where are the hangups?

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Report: Postal Service work hours at historic low last year

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For anyone needing yet another marker of the U.S. Postal Service’s condition, here you go: Total work hours last year fell to their lowest point since the mail carrier became an independent federal agency in 1971. That’s according to the Postal Regulatory Commission’s “Annual Compliance Determination” report released this week.

For fiscal 2011, total work hours dropped to just under 1.15 billion, the report says. With the exception of rural letter carriers, no craft was spared. Clerks and mail handlers were hardest hit, with their total hours dipping almost 4 percent. The decline shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the number of postal employees is also falling to historic lows. From 2008 to last year the career workforce tumbled from 663,238 to 552,251, about a 16 percent decline.


House Republicans’ cyber bill promotes information sharing

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Two Republican congresswomen introduced a cybersecurity bill this week that promotes information sharing and aligns closely with legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Reps. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced the 2012 Strengthening and Enhancing Cybersecurity by Using Research, Education, Information, and Technology Act (SECURE IT), H.R. 4263, on Tuesday.

The bill would provide “explicit authorization for the private sector to defend its own networks and voluntarily share cyber threat information within the private sector and with the government – without the legal barriers that currently exists,” acorrding to a news release.

Other measures include:

- Stiffer penalities for cyber criminals who hack into servers and steal personal information like credit card numbers and government documents.

 - Better security of federal networks through reforms to the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act.

- Advancement of cybersecurity research.

Senator MacCaskill’s grandsons ham it up for the camera.

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Spring Break fever was in the air today on Capitol Hill. Legislators have officially fled Washington D.C. and there will be no hearings until April 16th.

But before the final votes ensued, the Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight held a hearing where Senators McCaskill, Portman and Tester grilled witnesses from the Army, The Office of Personnel and Management and The Department of Homeland Security over contractor spending.

Meanwhile, Chairwoman McCaskill’s grandsons were in attendance. My guess is they are on their own Spring Break. They sat graciously through the hearing; only occasionally trying sneak into my shot. I’m sure they were absolutely enthralled with the subject of Contractors: How Much Are They Costing the Government.

When Grandma adjourned the hearing she let the boys smack the gavel to officially call the hearing to a close – then they really spotted me. And as kids do, they hammed it up for the camera. So, cute.


Senator McCaskill speaks with OPM Chief Operating Officer, Chuck Grimes, while her grandchildren ham it up for the camera, March 29, 2012.

CFC spending controversy: What do you think?

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Federal Times would like to hear from you regarding the $1.1 million in controversial expenses made by the Washington-area Combined Federal Campaign.

As we first reported last night, the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general criticized a string of expenses made by Global Impact between 2007 and 2009, including:

  • $11,315 for a night out for 600 at a Washington Nationals game;
  • $1,500 to hire Howard University’s jazz band for a conference;
  • $1,159 for a nighttime tour of Washington;
  • $680 for chair massages; and
  • $102,503 for meals over three years.

How does this make you feel? Does it shake your confidence in how the federal government’s massive charity drive is run? Will it make you think twice about donating to, or volunteering for, the CFC? Or do you think the revelations are no big deal? Write me at slosey@federaltimes.com. If you’d like to share your thoughts anonymously, that’s fine.

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GOP budget plan would drastically hike FERS contributions

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The Republican Study Committee yesterday proposed steep increases to the amount federal employees would contribute to their pension plans.

The committee’s budget plan for next year — called “Cut, Cap and Balance: A Budget for Fiscal Year 2013″ — calls for federal employees to split the cost of their pensions with taxpayers. Federal Employees Retirement System employees now contribute 0.8 percent of each paycheck toward their pensions; the government covers the remaining 11.7 percent. This would mean FERS employees would pay 6.25 percent of each paycheck toward their pension. (Plus another 6.2 percent towards Social Security, of course, and their regular Thrift Savings Plan contributions if they choose to participate.)

Employees under the older Civil Service Retirement System would be unaffected, since they already pay the same 7 percent toward their pensions as the government.

The Republican Study Committee said this would save $110 billion over ten years.

The proposal also calls for switching to a so-called chained CPI method for inflation-based adjustments to federal pensions, which the GOP said would save $26 billion over a decade.

And it wants to turn the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program to a premium support system, which it expects would save $27.6 billion over ten years. Under this plan, the government would cover the first $5,000 of premiums for a self-only health plan, or the first $11,000 for a family plan, and federal employees would cover the rest. The GOP plan doesn’t say whether or by how much those subsidies would increase in the future, but when the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit committee considered a similar plan for FEHBP, it proposed increasing subsidies by the gross domestic product plus one percentage point. Critics of that plan said the growth would not keep up with inflation, eventually shifting the bulk of health care costs onto federal employees.

(Speaking of Simpson-Bowles, CNN reports that there may be some life in it yet … but probably not much. Seems that not even Clint Eastwood can save that plan.)

Last year’s Republican Study Committee budget proposal would have frozen pay for five years and cut the workforce by 15 percent. But yesterday’s plan does not include those provisions.

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Business group backs White House push for fast-track reorganization authority

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A prominent business group is lining up behind the Obama administration’s bid for fast-track government reorganization authority.

“This is a cause that’s ripe for collaboration across the aisle and in both chambers,” Business Roundtable President John Engler wrote in a joint op-ed with Jeff Zients, acting director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. “Waste and duplication in government are not the fault of Democrats or Republicans alone. Both parties share responsibility for this problem. Now both have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to address it.”

Engler, a Republican, is the former governor of Michigan; the Roundtable is an organization of chief executive officers of large companies.

The op-ed, posted on the web site of “Politico,” comes less than a week after the fast-track legislation got its first formal airing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The bill would still give Congress the final say on any significant Executive Branch restructuring, but would restrict lawmakers to voting specific proposals up or down, without the opportunity to filibuster or offer amendments.



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Postal bill stalls in the Senate

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The Senate took a surprise first vote on postal legislation today. The result: Lawmakers probably won’t be trying again before mid-April.

The bill is the 21st Century Postal Reform Act (S.1789); the vote, which came this afternoon, was on a procedural “cloture” motion to see if supporters could muster the 60 votes needed to move forward with debate. As it turned out, they couldn’t. The motion picked up only 51 votes, with most Democrats voting in favor and most Republicans opposed.

The Senate hadn’t been expected to take up the bi-partisan bill until tomorrow at the earliest. Why lawmakers proceeded today was the subject of two schools of thought. By one reading, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Ct., and the measure’s co-sponsors wanted to gauge the level of support as they keep negotiating with other lawmakers on crucial details. By another, majority Democrats simply wanted to get off debate on a separate measure to repeal oil and gas industry tax breaks because it was giving Republicans an opportunity to highlight high prices at the pump. Whatever the motive, the postal bill’s backers may have some work to do.

In a statement afterwards, Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and co-sponsor, said he looked forward to the Senate considering the legislation after lawmakers return from an Easter/Passover break the week of April 16.

“I don’t think this vote accurately reflects senators’ feelings on the legislation, though,” Carper said. “In fact, it’s clear that the bill enjoys support from senators on both sides of the aisle who recognize that we must act quickly if we hope to save this American institution.”

If signed into law, the bill would let the U.S. Postal Service tap surplus pension fund contributions to offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to up to 100,000 USPS employes. Here’s a link to an official synopsis that lists the measure’s other highlights.

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Agriculture CIO heads to consulting firm Accenture

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Chris Smith will resign from his position as chief information officer at the Agriculture Department next month for an executive role at technology consulting firm Accenture Federal Services, the company announced Tuesday.

Smith will begin his new role as the company’s chief technology and innovation officer on April 9, according to Accenture. He will be responsible for developing the technology agenda for Accenture’s federal business and managing the company’s federal service offerings in the areas of cloud computing, big data, logistics and supply chain and cost reduction.  

Smith has served as Agriculture’s CIO since 2009. Under his leadership the department migrated 120,000 email boxes to Microsoft’s cloud solution, which the department estimates will save $6 million annually.

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