Federal Times Blogs

NYT solicits Postal Service ideas

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The New York Times posted a series of letters to the editor today offering suggestions as to how to solve the Postal Service’s financial crisis. The Postal Service wants to close some branches and end Saturday service, ideas that most members of Congress are reluctant to support.

One reader, Jonathan Gyory of Winchester, Mass., suggested an intriguing solution:

Rather than eliminate Saturday delivery, why not bite the bullet and reduce mail delivery to three days a week? Half of the postal routes would receive mail on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the other half on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Each letter carrier would be responsible for two routes instead of one, coinciding with the expected 50 percent rate of attrition forecast for postal workers over the next 10 years.

Mail carriers would complain that this arrangement would saddle them with twice as much junk mail, and they would be right. The answer is to end the bulk-rate subsidy currently provided to deliver supermarket circulars, clothing catalogs and credit card offers. This would save trees and fuel, and reduce the burden on our landfills.”

What say you, readers? Does this idea have merit? What parts of Gyory’s suggestion do you agree or disagree with? The Postal Service needs to make changes, so where do you think they should cut?

Yes, you have to fill out your Census form

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This is a 2010 Census form. When you get yours, fill it out. It's the law.

This is a 2010 Census form. When you get yours, fill it out. It's the law.

If you’ve watched the Super Bowl or “American Idol,” you’ve seen ads touting the 2010 Census. Fill out your form, the ads say. It’s cool. It will get your state money and representation.

What they need to say: You must fill out your Census form. It’s the law.

A new Rasmussen Reports poll shows only 13 percent of Americans realize it’s illegal not to fill out your Census form. Census forms will start arriving at homes this week, but the Rasmussen poll, released Monday, shows not everyone understands how the Census works.

  • 57 percent said it is not against the law to not answer your Census questions.
  • 30 percent aren’t sure if Census participation is mandatory.
  • 25 percent of Americans don’t know what the Census is.

And feds, you scored only slightly better:

  • 21 percent of government employees said it is illegal not to complete your Census form.
  • 10 percent of private-sector employees said it’s illegal not to participate.


The IRS really wants its 4 cents’ worth

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The IRS wants Harv's Metro Car Wash in California to pay these. Oh, and $202.31 in penalties and interest.

The IRS wants Harv's Metro Car Wash in California to pay these. Oh, and $202.31 in penalties and interest.

If two IRS agents personally delivered a tax-due notice to your business, you’d assume you’d made a serious clerical error and owed thousands of dollars, right?

Try 4 cents.

That’s how much IRS agents told a manager last week at Harv’s Metro Car Wash in Sacramento, Calif., that the company owned in back taxes. Since the 4 cents dated back to 2006, interest and penalties owed totaled $202.31.

All for 4 cents.

The car wash’s owner, Aaron Zeff, told The Sacramento Bee that the IRS sent him a letter on Oct. 22, 2009, stating that his company “has filed all required returns and addressed any balances due.”

Reading that, one would gather that he or she owned no taxes. But apparently that’s not the case, and that has Zeff both confused and annoyed.

It’s hilarious that two people hopped in a car and came down here for just 4 cents. I think [the IRS] may have a problem with priorities.”

UPDATE: The Sacramento Bee just posted another story saying Zeff has cut the IRS a check for $202.35. Zeff said the car wash was late several years ago on a quarterly payroll tax filing, and penalties and interest were assessed on the late filing.

The car wash made the late payment, which covered all but 4 cents of the payroll obligation, leaving the penalties and interest in place, Zeff told the Bee.

Zeff said he wonders why he was never told about the balance before last week’s surprising IRS drop in.

What’s still a mystery is why Zeff was never informed about the tardy payment (and resulting fees) before last week’s visit by agents.


A stolen sarcophagus, anyone?

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CBP and ICE seized this 3,000-year-old sarcophagus in 2008.

CBP and ICE seized this 3,000-year-old sarcophagus in 2008.

If you think you can get an illegally-obtained Egyptian sarcophagus through customs, think again.

This beautifully-decorated and well-preserved sarcophagus was seized by a Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist in Miami in 2008. The specialist was concerned that the sarcophagus would require a permit to enter the country and referred the 3,000-year-old coffin to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Trade Enforcement Team.

They investigated the sarcophagus’ history and determined it was indeed stolen property. ICE and CBP presented the sarcophagus to the people of Egypt Wednesday at a ceremony at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.

ICE and CBP returned the sarcophagus to the people of Egypt Wednesday.

ICE and CBP returned the sarcophagus to the people of Egypt Wednesday.

Said CBP Assistant Commissioner Allen Gina at the National Geographic Society’s ceremony:

Through the facilitation and enforcement of U.S. trade laws, this artifact will provide the Egyptian people a key to their past.”

To view all of the photos, click here.

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How many e-mail systems does an agency need?

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Many agencies use a single e-mail messaging system across all departments and offices. That’s not the case at the Agriculture Department, which operates 27 different e-mail systems, USDA Chief Information Officer Christopher Smith told a House Agriculture subcommittee Wednesday.

Only the largest departments within the USDA have modernized and use shared e-mail systems. The other departments and agencies operate as they have for years — separately and without collaboration. Each office is responsible for monitoring and maintaining its own e-mail system, which is time consuming and slows down the USDA’s modernization, Smith said.

This fragmented approach has hampered USDA’s ability to implement and adopt new collaboration technologies that leverage part or the entire e-mail platform to deliver services such as instant and unified messaging [integrated phone and e-mail inbox].”

Smith said his office is working to consolidate those 27 disparate e-mail systems into one coherent e-mail platform, though he didn’t have a timeline for the project’s completion.

What are the e-mail systems like at your office? Is there a reason why your office runs its own e-mail system? Or do you use systems such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes?

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WH declassifies cybersecurity parameters

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The White House has declassified much of a cybersecurity initiative developed during the George W. Bush administration.

The release of Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative’s 12 key goals is part of the Obama administration’s quest for transparency, said Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt in a March 2 White House blog post announcing the declassification. Bush created the initiative in 2008 and few details were available about it before the March 2 release.

Schmidt wrote:

We will not defeat our cyber adversaries because they are weakening, we will defeat them by becoming collectively stronger, through stronger technology, a stronger cadre of security professionals, and stronger partnerships.”

Portions of the initiative outlining cyberwarfare plans remain classified.

To read the 12 initiatives, click here.

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Feds: Want a government-issued iPhone?

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Most federal employees who have a work-issued smartphone have a BlackBerry. If you’re eligible to receive a work phone, do you want to trade your BlackBerry in for an iPhone but can’t because agencies don’t issue iPhones because of security concerns?

I’m writing a story about the iPhone and the government market, and I’d like to hear from federal employees who wish they could use an iPhone at work. Please e-mail me at rneal@federaltimes.com, and as always, we don’t publish any e-mails or information without first getting your permission.

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Cut federal pay to help reduce the deficit?

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The federal government is borrowing too much and costs too much to run. If it were a private company, it would have cut employee salaries a long time ago to make ends meet, say two economists in a column for Forbes magazine.

And that’s what the federal government needs to do to show it’s serious about fiscal responsibility and reducing the deficit, write economists Robert Stein and Brian Wesbury.

If private companies operated like the federal government, creditors and analysts would have serious concerns about the companies’ fiscal health and reconsider doing business with them, they write. And with unemployment hovering at 10 percent, the remaining employed workforce — many of whom have dealt with pay cuts, furloughs and pay freezes — shouldn’t keep giving their income to provide for pay raises for federal employees, they write.

The pay increase in his budget would actually be the smallest in 20 years. But total compensation per federal worker — cash earnings plus fringe benefits – now averages twice that of the private sector. So cutting cash earnings by 10 percent across the board seems not only reasonable, but justified.

A 10 percent cut would save $15 billion a year, not a lot when compared to the $14 trillion deficit, they write. But “with today’s interest rates, the present value of all future outlay savings would total roughly $750 billion,” they calculate.

What say you? Debates over federal pay can often get heated, so let’s have a vigorous debate — but keep it civil.


Fallout from the WH party crashers

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White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers is leaving her job a few months after her office allowed uninvited guests to attend a state dinner, the White House announced today.

Rogers will be returning to the private sector in Chicago, where she first met President Obama, reports The Washington Post. Rogers faced blistering criticism from Congress and the media after employees of her office, which clears guests for White House events, failed to catch three uninvited guests who walked into a state dinner for the prime minister of India.

In a statement, the president and Michelle Obama thanked Rogers, a longtime family friend, for her service.

We are enormously grateful to Desiree Rogers for the terrific job she’s done as the White House Social Secretary.  When she took this position, we asked Desiree to help make sure that the White House truly is the People’s House, and she did that by welcoming scores of everyday Americans through its doors, from wounded warriors to local schoolchildren to NASCAR drivers.  She organized hundreds of fun and creative events during her time here, and we will miss her.

Army officials share social networking tips

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The Army is at the forefront of social networking, offering Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages to connect the public with soldiers in uniform. And while the military enjoys broad support online — the Army’s Facebook page has 173,000 fans — that doesn’t mean it’s immune from inappropriate posts from those who take issue with the military or politics.

Policing racist, sexist or harassing comments is important to maintaining the military’s integrity, but deleting too many comments may make users suspicious of censorship, said Staff Sgt. Josh Salmons, emerging media coordinator at Fort Meade’s Defense Information School during a Feb. 24 panel at the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association conference in Washington, D.C.

Salmons posts notices on social networking pages alerting users that offensive comments may be deleted. By making clear what language is tolerated and the sites’ editorial policies, agencies can keep social networking sites polite and civil, Salmons said.

And the Army’s Facebook page issues a straightforward warning to those who may want to “troll” on the page’s wall and post incendiary comments:

We do not allow graphic, obscene, explicit or racial comments or submissions nor do we allow comments that are abusive, hateful or intended to defame anyone or any organization.

Col. Kevin Arata, director of the Army’s online and social media division, said he requires Facebook posts to be suitable for his 12- and 14-year-old kids to read.  And the posted policy works, he said, because he now rarely removes comments from the nearly year-old Army Facebook page.

In fact, fellow Facebook users often police the page and call out those who may have stepped over the line of polite conversation, Arata said.

You get a couple nutjobs who want to litter the page, and it’s a guy or gal who has a agenda. The fans came back and said, ‘Hey this is a page for people who like the Army. If you don’t like the Army, go somewhere else.’”

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