Federal Times Blogs

Shutdown Watch-Day 14: Headed down to the wire (again)

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Good Morning! Today is a federal holiday, but that doesn’t mean much to hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal employees as the partial government shutdown enters its third week. According to a message from one agency leader, the Office of Personnel Management has said this is an unpaid furlough day both for non-excepted and excepted employees unless they are required to report to “perform excepted functions.”

And about ending that shutdown . . . Sunday produced lots of saber-rattling and zero tangible evidence that a deal is in sight, either on reopening the government or raising the $16.7 trillion debt ceiling, with just three days now remaining before the Obama administration says it will run out of emergency borrowing authority.

Nonetheless, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev,. sounded an upbeat note, saying that he had  a “productive conversation” with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Our discussions were substantive, and we will continue those discussions,” Reid said on the Senate floor, according to the Congressional Record. “I am optimistic about the prospects for a positive conclusion to the issues before this country today.”

The stock market seems a bit dubious, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and other major indices all initially down this morning.

But if this fight originated in Republicans’ insistence on defunding implementation of the Affordable Care Act, (aka Obamacare), the battlefield has now expanded to encompass Democrats’ demands to soften or eliminate this fiscal year’s looming sequester-related budget cuts. Absent any congressional action to rewrite the 2011 Budget Control Act, the next round of reductions is likely to hit in January. McConnell is open to including changes in a debt ceiling increase, as long as the end result doesn’t raise overall spending levels and doesn’t involve a tax increase, according to an aide.  But opening a new front in the conflict may make it that much harder to resolve, particularly with time growing short before a possible debt default.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., warned that Democrats are “on the verge of being one tick too cute.” Just as the Republican-controlled House overreached in seeking to undo the health care law, Democrats are overreaching “as they see the House possibly in disarray,” Corker said.

The upshot (hold your breath): A final deal may involve a short-term continuing resolution to reopen the government and buy time for talks on a broader budget agreement. According to The Wall Street Journal , Reid sounded out McConnell on a CR that would run through mid-December at current spending levels, accompanied by an approximately six-month debt limit increase. In our deadline-driven political system, the expectation is that all sides will come together in time to stave off catastrophe (think August 2011). But assuming that the Senate can pass the usual stop-gap bill, the measure still has to get through the House, long-time budget watcher Stan Collender noted today in a Tweet. “No guarantee at all House GOP will follow even if [the Senate[ vote is 100-0,” Collender wrote.

In other news:

The Federal Housing Administration is calling on mortgage lenders to be sensitive to financial hardships facing federal employees and contractors subject to furloughs, layoffs or lost income stemming from the shutdown. That advisory comes as many, if not most, feds receive smaller than usual paychecks because of the shutdown.

The National Association of State Budget Officers (in case you thought the spending stalemate only affects feds) puts out a brief on what the shutdown means for state governments.

The American Federation of Government Employees warns that this week will be a “critical turning point” for many of its members as their paychecks run out.

Any major developments we’ve missed, particularly in regard to agency news? Let us know with an email to shutdownstories@federaltimes.com



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Association of Government Accountants honors agency reporting

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Twenty agencies big and small were recently noted for top-notch financial and performance reporting by the Association of Government Accountants.

The “Certificate of Excellence in Accountability Reporting” (CEAR)  singles out “high-quality Performance and Accountability Reports (PARs) and Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) that effectively illustrate and assess financial and program performance, accomplishments and challenges, cost and accountability,” the accountants association said in a news release. The association also spotlights the teams of dedicated federal professionals who (often unsung) put the reports together.

“Given the fiscal status of the United States government and the public’s perceptions about government fiscal accountability and transparency, the achievement of this year’s CEAR recipients is even more significant,” AGA Executive Director Relmond Van Daniker said in the release. The agencies being honored “truly represent a select group within the government financial management community.”

Here’s a rundown of the winners:

Architect of the Capitol
Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Housing Finance Agency
Federal Trade Commission
Office of Financial Stability (Treasury Department)
Peace Corps
Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Education Department
Housing and Urban Development Department
Interior Department
Labor Department
State Department
Treasury Department
Government Accountability Office
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Patent and Trademark Office
Securities and Exchange Commission
Small Business Administration
Social Security Administration

Also honored at the May 22 National Press Club ceremony were 10 agencies that showed “specific points of excellence” within their fiscal year 2012 PARs. Known as ‘Best in Class’ awards, the recipients included:

Health and Human Services Department: Best Summary of Management and Performance Challenges by the Inspector General
Labor Department: Most Complete Schedule of Spending
Peace Corps: Most Comprehensive and Candid Presentation of Forward-Looking Information
FTC: Best Agency Head Message
HUD: Best Presentation of a Financial Management Systems Framework
Interior: Best High-Level Discussion of Performance
Capitol Architect: Best Analysis of an Agency’s Financial Statements
FAA: Most Representative of Editorial Excellence
Department of Homeland Security: Best Improper Payment and Recovery Act Reporting
Central Intelligence Agency: Best Introduction


HUD managers: PLEASE don’t toss those questionnaires!

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Many are the ways in which the government loses money to contractors, but by failing to answer a survey? That’s essentially what happened at the Housing and Urban Development Department, which cost taxpayers more than $267,000 because some of its managers didn’t bother filling out customer satisfaction questionnaires from tech giant Hewlett-Packard.

Here’s the story, according to the department’s inspector general: Under the terms of a 2005 information technology contract, HP has to ask managers in HUD’s Office of the Chief Information Officer every six months how happy they are with the company’s work. If the survey response rate falls below 50 percent, Hewlett-Packard automatically gets an $89,200 bonus.

Three times in a row–from August 2008 to early last year–HUD missed that target, meaning it had to pay Hewlett-Packard a total of $267,600. Although the CIO’s office sent managers reminder notices, “those notices did not emphasize the responsibility and the impact to HUD of them not responding,” the inspector general wrote in an October report.  Because survey participants were not anonymous to Hewlett-Packard, the IG added, managers were not motivated to respond “and may not have been candid in their responses.”

Federal Times obtained a redacted copy of the report under the Freedom of Information Act.

The bonuses, it should be noted, are a pittance in comparison to the contract’s total value, which HUD spokeswoman April Brown pegged at around $404 million. Out of a dozen surveys required so far under the contract, the three highlighted by the IG are the only ones where the response rate dropped below 50 percent, Brown said via email. The department has taken steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again, she said.

A Hewlett-Packard spokeswoman had no comment.

Asked why HUD would agree to reward a contractor in that fashion, Brown said the provision is  in line with commercial terms for “incentive administration.” At the Project on Government Oversight, spokesman Joe Newman couldn’t name another government contract with a similar deal.

For Hewlett-Packard, Newman said, “it’s almost as if there’s an incentive for them not to really gather feedback from the staff.”

No kidding.

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New report shows challenges to White House IT reforms

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On Nov. 19, the Obama administration proclaimed a new path for government information technology procurement. But an overview of one agency’s travails suggests that a steep climb lies ahead.

The agency is the Housing and Urban Development Department; the newly released Government Accountability Office review finds that HUD officials had a hard time just coming up with a congressionally mandated plan to lay out its IT buying strategy.

That document is required by a spending bill approved last December. Under its terms, HUD can’t obligate more than 25 percent of available money for IT modernization until the House and Senate appropriations committees receive details on key milestones, expected mission benefits and other basics.

But the department’s first try this spring left the GAO underwhelmed. Out of eight projects included in the plan, HUD failed to spell out “specific and measurable benefits” for five, the report says. The plan also did not fully meet conditions that each project be shown to comply with HUD’s enterprise architecture, be subject to lifecycle management policies, and be covered by capital planning and control requirements.

In general, HUD had failed to adequately establish any of the management controls needed for effective IT modernization, according to an earlier GAO briefing attached to the report, in large part because a new IT leadership team had recently been put in place and needed time to introduce a new approach. “Nevertheless, HUD continues to invest in multiple IT modernization projects,” the briefing says, “and may expand on the number of projects in the near term.”

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Government performance data on the Web

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I reported yesterday on the Office of Management and Budget’s plan to review agencies’ progress toward their high-priority performance goals and post that information on the Web.

I spoke with Peter Grace at HUD this morning and he said the site will be called USAperformance.gov and he expects it to be live by July. Shelley Metzenbaum of OMB would only say yesterday that it would be up this summer or this fall, so perhaps July is the goal, but they’re hedging their bets on when it will actually go live.

Right now, the USAperformance.gov URL exists but is password protected.

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Transition Watch: Donovan gets deputy at HUD

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The new sheriff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, now has a deputy.

The White House announced yesterday it nominated Ron Sims for the post.

Sims is the county executive of King County, Washington, which includes Seattle. As deputy, he will manage HUD’s day-to-day operations. HUD has a $39 billion operating budget and approximately 8,500 employees.

Donovan called Sims “the perfect deputy secretary candidate” saying:

His experience at the helm of a large urban government provides a critical perspective and his collaborative approach to problem-solving has prepared him to effectively lead HUD’s operations as the agency charts a new aggressive course.

Sims now faces Senate confirmation before he takes the post.

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Senate approves five Obama officials

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Barack Obama’s Cabinet is filling up. Last night the Senate confirmed:

In other confirmation news:

  • Susan Rice, Obama’s choice for U.N. ambassador, was approved.
  • Nancy Sutley was confirmed as chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
  • And finally, Lisa Jackson was given the green light to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, after Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., lifted his objection to a vote by unanimous consent.

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