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As sequestration looms, OMB tells agencies to detail plans for furloughs, contract cuts

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With the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration set to begin Friday, the Office of Management and Budget posted new planning instructions to agencies this evening. The bottom line: It’s time to get specific.

Agencies should detail the number of employees who will be furloughed, for how long and when furlough notices will be issued, OMB Controller Danny Werfel wrote. Agencies should also spell out any major contracts they plan to cancel, re-scope or delay. Ditto for grants. Federal Times will have more on this subject tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can read Werfel’s memo here.

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Former Social Security chief happy to reclaim free speech rights from OMB

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In a radio interview last week, former Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue voiced regret at leaving behind a workforce that he described as “very dedicated” and talented.

Astrue, who stepped down earlier this month, was happier at no longer having to run his every statement—even including proposed messages to SSA employees about sequestration—past minders at the Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t miss having everything I say being cleared by a 28-year-old at OMB,” Astrue told WBUR, a National Public Radio member station in Boston. “And I’m not critical of OMB for that. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, I think the president needs to have some consistency of message. But it does get very frustrating. And particularly when you’re trying to say something important and it’s neutered down to a platitude. I always found it difficult to go out and just voice the platitudes.

“So, you know, getting my First Amendment rights back and being able to say what I think, you know, you don’t miss that until you’ve given it up. And I guess, you know, when you’ve given it up you appreciate it more when you get it back.”

Asked for comment on Astrue’s remarks, OMB spokeswoman Jessica Santillo emailed this response to FedLine: “OMB has always played an important role in coordinating activity and communications across the federal government to help ensure consistency and accuracy.”

SILVER SCREEN FEDS: ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Miracle on 34th St.’

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"If only we had some postal workers right now!" (from Miracle on 34th Street, 20th Century Fox)

Welcome to a new ongoing feature here at FedLine: Silver Screen Feds! Your trusty FedLine bloggers don’t just breathe federal government news day in and day out. We’re also die-hard pop culture geeks, and nothing entertains us more than seeing how federal employees are portrayed on television and in film.

Hollywood’s depiction of feds runs the gamut — from dashing heroes to hissable villains, from incompetent comic relief to self-sacrificing martyrs. In this series, we’re going to take a lighthearted look at the Best and Worst feds in television and movie history. Every Friday, we’ll profile two characters — one depicting the best federal employees have to offer, and one not-so-great fictional fed. We may even focus on a few who blur the line between good and bad.

And we’d like to hear from you. E-mail FedLine bloggers Stephen Losey or Andy Medici with your favorite feds from film or television.

For this first entry, Andy takes a look at the postal workers who save the day in the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street.” And Stephen examines the tragic flaws that bring down the Environmental Protection Agency’s Walter Peck in 1984′s “Ghostbusters.”

Read the rest of this entry »

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Furlough fears: We want to hear from you

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Federal Times would like to hear from federal employees about the upcoming furloughs that are looking more and more likely. How will losing 20 percent of your take-home pay — as might happen to most Defense Department employees — hit you and your family? What are you hearing from your managers? What is the threat of sequestration and furloughs doing for your office’s morale and productivity?

E-mail Stephen Losey or Sean Reilly with your thoughts. If you’d like to stay anonymous, that’s fine.

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How the U.S. Postal Service legally justifies five-day mail delivery

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For anyone with a background in appropriations law and a little time on their hands, FedLine has obtained a copy of the legal opinion that the U.S. Postal Service is using to justify its decision to end Saturday mail delivery this August.

The gist: The long-standing congressional ban on curtailing six-day delivery doesn’t apply at present because the federal government is operating under a stopgap continuing resolution. And even if did apply, lawmakers don’t have to continue the ban when that resolution expires March 27, Postal Service lawyers write in the nine-page opinion.

The underlying reasoning is complicated enough that even Postmaster General Pat Donahoe had trouble explaining it at the Feb. 6 news conference announcing the planned delivery change. You can read the opinion for yourself here.

But while USPS attorneys say the agency is not flouting Congress’s will, the legal niceties may be lost on some lawmakers. “You said you’re satisfied that you have legal authority–I’m not,” Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., told Donahoe at a hearing last week of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee. “And I’m not sure the committee is,” Pryor added.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., also wasn’t satisfied. Despite “what’s in the law, your lawyer apparently is saying that you can cancel that sixth day,” he said. And while Donahoe pleaded with lawmakers to stay out of the way, Levin suggested that the agency might actually need additional congressional oversight of its contracts with Federal Express and UPS.

“Every contract in this Postal Service is competed,” Donahoe responded.

“That’s fine,” Levin said, “But it’s also the American way that there be some congressional oversight of your contracts.”


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Memo to feds: It could be worse

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No doubt, many federal employees will remember Feb. 20 as a dark day. The Defense Department formally unveiled plans to furlough most of its almost 800,000 civilian workers if sequestration comes to pass. More agencies could soon follow suit.

But such sacrifices are old hat to state and local government employees who have been enduring stiff cutbacks since the economy tanked in 2008. In recent years, for example, dozens of states have furloughed employees, resorted to outright layoffs and/or required workers to pitch in more for benefits, according to a rundown by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One of the largest, California, has been furloughing employees for a couple of days a month ever since 2010. Under a law passed last year (now being challenged in court), Arizona state workers are responsible for paying 53 percent of contributions to their pension plan, according to the conference. By contrast, Federal Employees Retirement System participants (with the exception of folks hired since the beginning of the year) pay less than 7 percent, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

The underlying reason for the tougher stance is that state governments generally have to balance their budgets and can’t borrow money for operating expenses when they run short. As a result, state employees have faced “significant changes” in the wake of the “Great Recession,” Todd Haggerty, an NCSL policy analyst, told FedLine.

So if misery really does love company, well, feds have plenty.


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GSA seeks industry input for cloud security program

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Federal officials are working to streamline the government’s security program for cloud products and services.

A critical part of the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP)mandates that cloud vendors hire a third-party organization to verify they meet federal security requirements. Today, the General Services Administration and the National Institute of Standards and Technology must first approve those third party-organizations, or 3PAOs. Then there’s the task of monitoring the performance of the 3PAOs and recommending whether to renew or revoke their status.

In a request for information to industry, GSA asked for input on how to privatize the accreditation process for 3PAOs. As FedRAMP evolves into a fully operational program within the next month or two, GSA is identifying ways to scale the program and get more cloud contractors through the FedRAMP process.

To date, there are 16 companies designated as approved 3PAOs, but that number is expected to increase. Only two vendors have completed the FedRAMP process.

GSA wants to contract with a privatized board to accredit 3PAOs, based on program standards. GSA wants industry to comment on the evaluation process for 3PAOs and how long those companies should have to comply with new accreditation standards. Those responses are due Feb. 26.

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Health insurance: What the Postal Service has in mind

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Lest anyone forget, Postmaster General Pat Donahoe remains keenly interested in creating a stand-alone health insurance plan for about 1.1 million U.S. Postal Service employees and retirees.

The latest reminder came at last week’s Senate hearing on the USPS’s financial crisis. Although lawmakers’ attention was predictably focused on the agency’s decision to end Saturday mail delivery, Donahoe also stressed the urgency of pulling out of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

“An astonishing 20 cents of every revenue dollar the Postal Service takes in must go toward health care costs,” Donahoe said in prepared testimony.  “By moving away from the federal system, nearly all of our employees and retirees would reap the benefits of getting equivalent or better healthcare coverage and paying less for it.”

Creation of a new health plan was a major stumbling block in contract talks with the National Association of Letter Carriers; although labor and management couldn’t reach a deal, a joint task force will keep discussing the issue, according to an arbitration panel’s recent decision.

But the Postal Service hasn’t furnished many details about what it has in mind. And employees may understandably be skeptical of any promises to provide comparable (or better) benefits at lower cost. Fortunately, the USPS inspector general took a look at the subject last year that fleshes out some specifics.

The inspector general’s report, whose conclusions drew a vigorous dissent from Postal Service management, can be read here. It’s of course possible that the USPS human resources team has since made changes to their plan; if so, however, those changes haven’t been made public.

In the meantime, here are a few takeaways from the IG’s review. By the Postal Service’s reckoning, creation of a stand-alone plan would save $52 billion. (The original total was $62.1 billion, but the agency then dropped the idea of freezing its contributions for retiree health insurance, according to the report.) Although the IG doesn’t say over what period of time those savings would occur, the key is requiring employees and retirees to move to Medicare, the taxpayer-funded medical benefits program for people aged 65 and older.

That step alone would save some $37 billion; for older employees and retirees, the Postal Service’s health plan (whatever it turns out to be) would become the back-up insurer to Medicare.  The Postal Service would also be freed of much, if not all, of the obligation to set aside billions of dollars now for future retiree care.

But from the employee/retiree perspective, there’s one immediate concern. By law, anyone eligible for Medicare Part B (which covers things like doctors’ visits and lab tests) is supposed to sign up after turning 65 or else face a 10 percent, per year, enrollment penalty.

According to the IG, there were about 88,000 USPS retirees over 65 who hadn’t signed up. Those folks would thus face late-enrollment penalties totaling $53 million per year, or an average of $625 per person. The Postal Service needs to settle that issue, the inspector general said, either by ensuring that the penalties will be waived or by deciding who’s going to foot the bill.

USPS workers and retirees could also pay more under another proposed change that would require anyone retiring after the end of this year to pay a standard deductible before the Postal Service picks up any cost not covered by Medicare. But the Postal Service would also expand coverage options from the two currently offered by the FEHBP to four. In some instances, employees could pay less than they do now. (Check out p. 11 of the IG report for a side-by-side comparison.)

The overall goal here is simple. The Postal Service, like any other money-losing enterprise, is trying to tamp down costs wherever it can. And postal workers generally pay less for their health benefits than other federal employees.

But because congressional approval is required, the Postal Service’s plans need political traction that so far appears to be lacking. At a September 2011 congressional hearing, for example, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry was notably unenthusiastic about letting the Postal Service leave the FEHBP. A fuller analysis of the potential effects was needed, Berry said, adding that he thought postal employees were “well-served” by the status quo.

In last year’s report, the inspector general recommended that USPS officials lay out to affected employees and retirees, as well as the government, “all potential cost increases, cost savings and cost shifts that would result from a transition to a Postal Service-proposed alternative health care plan.”

In their strongly worded response attached to the report, postal executives both disputed key findings and objected to what they called its “negative tone.” The Postal Service, for example, has proposed relief from the Medicare late enrollment penalties, they wrote. A draft of the report, they added, “totally ignores the fact that total costs will decrease substantially and that out-of-pocket costs for most employees and retirees will decrease.”

The Postal Service has yet, however, to make the kind of detailed disclosure urged by the IG. Until it does, a tough sales job lies ahead.

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Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker to resign

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The Veterans Affairs Department’s chief information officer told employees Friday he will resign, the department confirmed.  

In a message to IT staff, Baker did not say when his last day will be and offered no explanation about his resignation. The DorobekINSIDER hinted that Baker may leave as soon as March 1.

Here’s some of what Baker told employees:

I would like to thank each of you for your hard work and dedication in serving our VA customers and our Nation’s Veterans.  Over the last four years, VA IT has come to be recognized as a leader in federal IT.  We have improved our relationships with our IT customers; established one of the highest performing product delivery organizations in the world; achieved visibility to our networks and medical devices; focused our decision-making based on metrics and not by anecdotes; and become an IT organization that is seen as an investment for the VA rather than an expense.

 Most critically, VA IT has become the backbone for the transformation of the VA into a 21stCentury organization that the Secretary has envisioned.  Your ability to deliver the technology necessary to support that transformation and to reliably meet our commitments to our customers is fundamental to that transformation.

Under Baker’s watch, VA instituted a program that drastically improved the number of IT projects delivered on schedule.  

Baker also has a senior role in VA’s partnership with the Defense Department to integrate their electronic health record systems. That project recently came under fire from lawmakers, who criticized the departments’ decision to revise plans to create a single electronic health record system.




GSA administrator appoints new agency CFO

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Dan Tangherlini, acting administrator of the General Services Administration, has appointed Michael Casella as the agency’s new chief financial officer, according to a Feb. 13 blog post.

Casella managed the development and humanitarian assistance budget at USAID and has worked at the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department.

“This experience promises to provide us with significant insights into the needs of our customers,” Tangherlini said.

The General Services Administration saw the resignation or firing of top leadership in April after an inspector general report detailed nearly $823,000 in wasteful spending at a 2010 conference in Las Vegas.

Tangherlini said Casella is part of a new team that will help the agency refocus on customer service and saving agencies money.