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Postmasters: What do you think of the buyout offer?

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In connection with a story, Federal Times is interested in getting postmasters’ views on the $20,000 buyouts that the Postal Service is offering. Does this look like a good deal to you (or not)? Are you considering it and, if so, what factors are on your mind? If you’d like to discuss this, please shoot me (Sean Reilly) an email at sreilly@federaltimes.com and let me know how best to reach you or give me a call directly at 703-750-8684.
Thanks very much.




NIST explains cloud computing in plain language

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The National Institute for Standards and Technology wants to demystify cloud computing.

NIST released a special publication on Tuesday to “explain cloud systems in plain language” and provide information technology executives with recommendations, concerns and the benefits of migrating to the cloud.

The 81-page document explains the level of service agencies can expect in various cloud environments and what potential pitfalls they should be aware of, such as abrupt changes in service agreements by the cloud providers and scheduled service outages, depending on the type of cloud.

 Recommendations include:

- Develop a plan for migrating data to and from the cloud and for accessing the data once it is in the cloud.

- Require that a cloud provider offer a mechanism for deleting user data on request  and providing evidence that the data was deleted.

- Request that a provider allow visibility into the operating services that affect your data or operations on that data, including monitoring of the system’s welfare.

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Are you a victim of the TSP hack?

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Did you get a letter this week informing you that your Social Security number and other personal information was stolen in last July’s hacking of a Thrift Savings Plan data center? If so, Federal Times would like to speak to you.

E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to speak anonymously, that’s fine.

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U.S. Postal Service cutback numbers: Handle with care

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When it comes to predicting the impact of its proposed mail processing plant cuts, the U.S. Postal Service has been throwing out some pretty big numbers that don’t always seem to jibe.

Back in February, for example, a USPS spokesman said the downsizing would eliminate 35,000 jobs; under a revised plan unveiled this month, that figure dropped to 28,000. And while USPS officials have pegged the projected savings at about $2.1 billion, they’ve also used the figure, $4.1 billion.

What gives?

Well, it’s complicated and some of the figures are in flux, the Postal Service acknowledges.

The estimated job effect, for example, is “constantly evolving as we continue to develop this plan,” spokesman Mark Saunders said in an email. To take just one factor that’s changed since the Postal Service first advanced the plant downsizing strategy last summer, the USPS career workforce (which would bear the brunt of the job cuts) has continued to shrink, while the mail carrier’s reliance on lower-cost temps has increased.

The plan “will continue to evolve as we implement this in phases, finalize the details and get a better understanding of how many employees will choose to voluntarily retire this year,” Saunders said. The $2.1 billion savings estimate comes from a filing last month with the Postal Regulatory Commission, the oversight body that’s reviewing a proposed change in first-class mail delivery standards tied to the plant cuts.

More than half of that dollar amount would come from reduced labor costs and productivity gains. But with fewer plants, the Postal Service would also need less maintenance, fewer contractors, etc., bringing the total expected savings up to $2.1 billion in comparison with fiscal 2010 levels.

On top of that, the agency then calculated the “per piece” costs associated with the new reduced network and applied that number to estimated mail volume in 2016 when all the changes are supposed to be fully in place, according to another spokesperson, Sue Brennan.  By the Postal Service’s reckoning, that would lead to another $2 billion in cost reductions for a total projected annual savings of $4.1 billion, she said.

When dealing with proposed reductions of this scope, uncertainty is probably inevitable. The bottom line: take these numbers with a grain of salt–and don’t be surprised if they continue to change.


Postal Service offering mail handlers $15,000 buyouts

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It’s official: The U.S. Postal Service is dangling more employee buyouts.

The buyouts, available to most mail handlers, will amount to $15,000 total, payable in separate $7,500 installments this December and December 2013, according to a Thursday bulletin on a Postal Service web site. With a few exceptions, all career employees covered by the Postal Service’s national agreement with the National Postal Mail Handlers Union are eligible, the bulletin says. Full-time employees wanting to sign up must do so by July 2, and agree to leave or retire by Aug. 31. Part-time career mail handlers are eligible on a pro-rated basis tied to the number of hours worked in the preceding year. Part-timers have until July 16 to make a decision, but must also be out the door by the end of August.

A USPS spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday night on how many employees would be eligible in all. Union President John Hegarty was also not available.  Last year, the NPMHU reported almost 39,000 regular members, according to a filing with the Labor Department.

The deal with the Postal Service “is intended to provide a financial cushion, and added peace of mind” for mail handlers wanting to move on, the NPMHU said in a separate statement on its web site.  At the American Postal Workers Union, which also represents some plant employees, a spokeswoman said earlier Thursday that the Postal Service had so far not extended a formal buyout offer for its members.

Confirmation of the new agreement with the mail handlers union comes a week after USPS executives said they would proceed with the closing or consolidation of 48 mail processing plants this summer as the first step in a historic downsizing that will eventually shrink the plant network by half and eliminate 28,000 jobs. The troubled mail carrier, which lost $6.5 billion in the first six months of fiscal 2012, is eager to cut costs by enticing workers to leave voluntarily. Earlier this month, the Postal Service offered $20,000 buyouts to some 21,000 postmasters under a separate plan to trim operating expenses at 13,000 post offices.

In 2009, the Postal Service had extended $15,000 incentives to employees represented by the NPMHU and the postal workers union in hopes of encouraging some 30,000 to leave. In that case, the payments were split into $10,000 the first year and $5,000 the second. Among workers not eligible for this latest offer are those on probation, along with any who are transferring to another federal agency, according to the Postal Service.

Federal Times had previously reported that buyouts were coming, but USPS officials refused last week to provide confirmation.

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What do you think of the move to the new Coast Guard headquarters?

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Are you a member of the Coast Guard moving to the new headquarters at St. Elizabeth’s in Southeast Washington, D.C. next year? Are you nervous? Excited? Do you have any issues with the move?

If you do, please email Andy Medici at amedici@federaltimes.com to sing its praises or air your grievances.

Appearances notwithstanding, transparency board still at work

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Casual observers might be forgiven for thinking that things are a bit slow over at the Government Accountability and Transparency Board.  This is the 11-member panel, you may recall, created last summer by President Obama as “a critical next step” in White House efforts to cut costs, crack down on fraud and open up the government’s books to the public.

Almost five months after the board’s chairman, Earl Devaney, retired, Obama hasn’t named a replacement. During the same time, the panel, made up mostly of inspectors general and financial management folk, has met just once, in April. But work on recommendations offered by the board in a December report is proceeding “diligently and collaboratively” between agencies, the Office of Management and Budget and the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email.

The April session offered a chance to discuss implementation, Mack said, adding that a progress report is in the works. The board has another meeting scheduled for June 19.

In those December recommendations, the board urged adoption of a comprehensive, government-wide framework to track and oversee spending.  The recommendations also incorporated a pet cause of Devaney:  A universal award identification system for government grants, contracts and loans to replace the existing agency-centric approach. This week, however, Devaney endorsed the rival DATA Act, a bill introduced last year that basically shares the same goals, but would also create an independent commission to oversee implementation.

That tipped it for Devaney, according to his column published in The Hill newspaper. Nothing spurs bureaucratic change faster than an act of Congress, he said. Without legislation, “the government’s response will be a never-ending round of unobtainable consensus building and an onslaught of new pilot projects, all designed to show some action, but really only masking their bureaucratic fears of losing control to a truly independent commission.”

In its current form, however, the DATA Act faces opposition from state officials who label its proposed reporting requirements an unfunded mandate. Here, for example, is what the National Conference of State Legislatures said after the bill won House approval last month:

“While NCSL agrees transparency and accountability should go hand-in-hand with federal spending, states should not be expected to provide the funds to make this possible. Another unfunded federal mandate as states slowly recover from the recession is the wrong way to go.”

The Senate has not yet taken up the DATA Act.

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Library of Congress to preserve Prince, Bo Diddley, ‘Rapper’s Delight’

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Prince (By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY)

The Library of Congress said today it will preserve everything from a tinny 1888 recording of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to Prince’s incendiary album “Purple Rain” as part of its latest slate of entries to the National Recording Registry.

The Library each year preserves 25 recordings it feels are “cultural, artistic and/or historical treasures for generations to come.” This year, a wide variety of recordings will be added, including:

  • Bo Diddley’s songs “Bo Diddley” and “I’m A Man,”
  • Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” recognized as the first hit rap song,
  • Booker T and the MG’s “Green Onions,”
  • Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,”
  • Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,”
  • Parliament’s album “Mothership Connection,”
  • A May 1977 concert by the Grateful Dead, and
  • Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”

Thomas Edison recorded an anonymous employee singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for a talking doll. It may sound unnervingly spooky, but it is believed to be the first commercial children’s recording, and possibly the first time someone was paid to sing on record. The registry also has audio of former slaves telling their life stories, Leonard Bernstein’s debut performance with the New York Philharmonic, and journalist Edward R. Murrow.

The announced preservations of “I Feel Love” and “Green Onions” come not long after Summer and Donald “Duck” Dunn, bassist for Booker T and the MGs, passed away. The Associated Press reported that the Library had already chosen Summer’s song weeks before she died of cancer.

But I find the government’s enshrinement of the “Purple Rain” album somewhat ironic, given that its highly sexual song “Darling Nikki” led then-senator’s wife and future First Lady Tipper Gore to lead a campaign against smutty rock music.

To put you in the right frame of mind for your drive home, enjoy this 70s-tastic performance of “Rapper’s Delight.” Ho-tel, mo-tel, Holiday Inn!

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Survey: Feds see short-term goals as barrier to sustainability efforts

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The biggest barrier to agency sustainability efforts is a focus on short-term objectives over longer-term goals, according to 51 percent of federal employees interviewed in a survey released Wednesday

More than 36 percent also said they don’t have enough resources for sustainability programs at their agency, according to LMI, a nonprofit organization that helped develop greenhouse gas reporting protocols.

Jennifer Bitting, a senior consultant and environmental engineer at LMI, said feds are under pressure to accomplish short-term goals such as acquisitions, construction or budget requests as opposed to longer-term energy efficiency and environmental targets.

“Sustainability is like a marathon and the budget process is like a sprint,” Bitting said.

President Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that requires federal agencies by 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions government-wide by 28 percent from a 2008 baseline.

Agencies must also meet a variety of mandates to cut fuel use and building energy, reduce water consumption and make their buildings more environmentally friendly.

John Selman, energy and environment program director for LMI, said agencies are working on better tools to manage, record and justify sustainability features in budget requests and in normal operations.

Only 34 percent of federal employees surveyed said sustainability was fully or mostly integrated into agency procedures while 51 percent said there was some integration – 14 percent said there was slight or nonexistent integration of sustainability into procedures.

Selman said as agencies work to better integrate sustainability practices into their core missions it will be less likely to be singled out during budget cuts. Only 17 percent of respondents said sustainability was fully or mostly integrated into the budget process.

“As long as these things are viewed as something extra to do they are going to get the axe when tough times come,” Selman said.

He said he was hopeful about sustainability programs despite possible budget cuts and funding shortfalls.

“In a time where it is tough to get money for programs people are still excited about this,” Selman said.

Senators to GSA: Focus on structural reforms to Public Buildings Service

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The General Services Administration should focus on structural changes to its Public Buildings Service, a group of senators from both parties said in a May 21 letter to GSA’s acting administrator Dan Tangherlini.

Senators Tom Carper, D-Del., Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said in the letter that GSA should also address “long-standing property management problems” in order to minimize wasteful spending.

GSA is conducting an agencywide review after an embarrassing scandal that centered on a lavish 2010 conference in Las Vegas that cost $822,000 for 300 employees. The scandal forced out the agency’s top leaders, and the White House quickly installed Tangherlini to clean house.

“In an era of shrinking budgets and scarce resources, it is critical that the federal government becomes a better steward of the land and property it owns,” the senators said in the letter.

GSA should also work with Congress to develop legislation to help with any structural and management changes at the agency, the letter said.

Since taking the top job April 2, Tangherlini has ushered in quick and noticeable reforms, including:

• An immediate clampdown on employee travel and conferences, with the exception of last week’s GSA Expo event here.

• A new chain of command for finance officers at the GSA regional offices, who now report directly to headquarters instead of to their regional administrators.

• The consolidation of conference management at the new Office of Administrative Services, which is responsible for contracting, and approving and reviewing spending, for conferences.

In an interview, Tangherlini said he is looking at other possible reforms, such as consolidating some operations — such as information technology, finance and contracting — at its two main divisions: the Public Buildings Service, which manages federal buildings and building leases, and the Federal Acquisition Service, which oversees many federal contracting programs.

“Not having multiple organizations within our organization doing the same thing is going to allow us to be more efficient ourselves, deliver our services more effectively and reduce costs,” he said.