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Obama administration renewing focus on IT acquisition

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For anyone familiar with last fall’s disastrous rollout of the healthcare.gov website (and that presumably includes most of the adult population of the United States), it will come as no surprise to hear that the Obama administration is again working to get smarter delivery of information technology services.

“We’ve learned a tremendous amount from the challenges the administration’s recently faced and have worked  diligently to address this past year,” Beth Cobert, a senior Office of Management and Budget official, said at a recent Association of Government Accountants gathering. “But we know that information technology is important to how the government works today and will be more important to the government going forward.”

As a result, the administration has “a focused effort under way to look at this,” said Cobert, who became OMB’s deputy director for management in October. That includes “many, many conversations” with government employees, contractors and IT firms that do no government business to gather ideas and to think about potential improvements.

There will be more to come on the subject in the months ahead, Cobert said, “but it’s clearly an area that I’m focused on and my team is focused on.”

 

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Transparency board to hold open meeting

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It may say something about federal attitudes toward openness that the Government Accountability and Transparency Board typically meets in secret.

But for the record, the board—launched by the Obama administration two years ago to tackle big-picture spending issues—will hold a public meeting next month. The purpose is to let members of the public weigh in with presentations “regarding accountability and transparency for federal expenditures made through contracts and grants,” according to a recent Federal Register notice.

Among the questions on which the board wants input at the Jan. 22 meeting:

“What questions are you trying to answer with federal spending information?”

“Where does federal spending information need clearer instructions or explanation?”

“What suggestions do you have for prioritizing federal spending information?”

Those interested in attending the meeting—to  be held at the General Services Administration’s regional office in downtown Washington, D.C.—should send an email to federaltransparency@ratb.gov and write “January 22,2014 GAT Board RSVP” in the subject line. The Register notice has more info for people wanting to make presentations.

The upcoming public get-together appears to be a first for the panel, which is mainly made up of agency inspectors general and operates under the purview of the Office of Management and Budget. Its mission is to build on lessons learned from the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (created to monitor spending from the 2009 stimulus bill) as well as to study ways to reduce waste and make spending more transparent, with Vice President Joe Biden’s office getting monthly updates, according to the relevant executive order. The board is currently chaired by Richard Ginman, director of procurement and acquisition policy at the Defense Department, according to its website.

While its sessions are closed and generally not announced in advance, the board later posts minutes online; the most recent compilation is from October. The site makes no mention of next month’s meeting.

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TVA privatization proposal still a live wire

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President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget request may be moribund on Capitol Hill, but one hot-button proposal buried deep within it appears to be very much alive: Taking a close look at the option of selling off the Tennessee Valley Authority, the government-owned electric utility.

The administration has launched a strategic review that’s delving into issues like “de-federalization,” the implications of a change in TVA ownership for economic development and how to deal with the agency’s assets, according to a rundown of “stakeholder outreach discussion items” provided to FedLine by the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a union representing about one-fifth of TVA’s some 12,500 employees.

The document, which IFPTE legislative director Matt Biggs said was drafted by the Office of Management and Budget, indicates that an interagency working group overseeing the review is made up of officials from the White House, Treasury Department and TVA.  It is marked “pre-decisional and deliberative,” a tactic often used by agencies to shield records from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

As the administration evaluates “a broad range of options to address TVA’s capital financing constraints,” it is  ”firmly committed to working with TVA’s stakeholders in an effort to better understand and address the interests and concerns of these groups regarding prospective TVA financial strategy alternatives,” the document says.

But in a Friday letter, IFPTE President Greg Junemann said the union got few concrete answers in a call with officials earlier this week. In the letter, addressed to OMB and TVA managers, he sought more information on a dozen points,  including exactly how the strategic review will work and whether any recommendations will be run by Congress.  “In our view, the belief that the TVA’s mission is no longer essential and is somehow linked [to] the fiscal sustainability of the overall budget is ill-advised,” Junemann said in the letter.

OMB spokesman Steve Posner and other agency officials could not be reached for comment late Friday afternoon.

The TVA, headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn., is one of the best-known legacies of the New Deal, with staunch defenders even among the Republicans who dominate Southern congressional delegations. (Yes, FedLine gets the irony.) But it also faces some well-documented challenges. For the record, here’s what the White House said in its FY14 budget request:

“Since its creation in the 1930s

during the Great Depression, the federally owned

and operated Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)

has been producing low-cost electricity and managing

natural resources for a large portion of the

Southeastern United States. TVA’s power service

territory includes most of Tennessee and parts of

Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North

Carolina, and Virginia, covering 80,000 square

miles and serving more than nine million people.

TVA is a self-financing government corporation,

funding operations through electricity sales and

bond financing. In order to meet its future capacity

needs, fulfill its environmental responsibilities,

and modernize its aging generation system,

TVA’s current capital investment plan includes

more than $25 billion of expenditures over the

next 10 years. However, TVA’s anticipated capital

needs are likely to quickly exceed the agency’s

$30 billion statutory cap on indebtedness. Reducing

or eliminating the federal government’s role

in programs such as TVA, which have achieved

their original objectives and no longer require

Federal participation, can help put the Nation

on a sustainable fiscal path. Given TVA’s debt

constraints and the impact to the Federal deficit

of its increasing capital expenditures, the

Administration

intends to undertake a strategic

review of options for addressing TVA’s financial

situation, including the possible divestiture of

TVA, in part or as a whole.”

 

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Cobert’s confirmation for OMB job applauded

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Beth Cobert’s arrival at the Office of Management and Budget is getting a particularly warm welcome from Steve VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer. In a Twitter message this afternoon, VanRoekel hailed Cobert ‘s confirmation as OMB’s deputy director for management, noting that he can now go back to being “full-time US CIO!”

Cobert, who comes from consulting firm McKinsey & Co., was sworn in today, five days after winning Senate confirmation. She replaces Jeff Zients, who stepped down at the end of April; on top of his day job, VanRoekel had been filling in as deputy management director since May. Also applauding Cobert’s confirmation was Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Throughout the executive branch, the deputy management director plays a “critical leadership role” in  “helping to guide agencies through these challenging financial times and promoting long-term management reforms that will deliver both better results and savings for taxpayers,” Carper said in a statement today. Cobert’s “private sector experience has prepared her well for this role,” he said, “and I look forward to working with her as she helps promote better management throughout our government.”

For anyone who’s keeping score, incidentally, this is the first time since January 2012 that the three top posts (director, deputy director for budget and deputy director for management) at OMB have all been filled by Senate-confirmed appointees.

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Shutdown over: Federal employees should report to work Thursday morning. Back pay coming soon.

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The 16-day partial government shutdown is officially over as President Obama has signed a stop-gap spending bill, Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell said in a message released early Thursday morning.

“This evening, the President signed a continuing resolution that reopens the federal government and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued guidance to all departments and agencies to resume operations in a prompt and orderly manner,” Burwell said.  “In the days ahead, we will work closely with departments and agencies to make the transition back to full operating status as smooth as possible. This has been a particularly challenging time for Federal employees and I want to thank our nation’s dedicated civil servants for their continued commitment to serving the American people.”

Feds will receive back pay in their next paychecks, a Burwell spokesman said in a follow-up email. Agencies are “strongly encouraged” to use telework and other ”workplace flexibilities to ensure a smooth transition back to work for employees,” OPM said in a statement on its website.

The bill, approved today by the House and Senate, will fund the government through Jan. 15.

The legislation would also allow a 1 percent across-the-board pay increase for federal employees, according to a joint news release from Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Ben Cardin, D-Md. The release does not make clear whether added steps will be needed to ensure that the proposed raise takes effect. Here is a cut-and-paste version of the release:

 WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Barbara A. Mikulski, Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Ben Cardin (both D-Md.), a member of the Senate Finance Committee, today announced that the bipartisan legislation to end the Tea Party Republican shutdown and reopen the federal government allows a 1 percent pay increase for federal employees and ensures that federal employees furloughed through no fault of their own receive their full pay.

“I’m proud to have fought on the front lines for federal employee pay as hard as federal employees fight on the front lines each and every day for America,” Senator Mikulski said. “The promise of a modest pay raise and back pay for furloughed government employees are good first steps in recognizing the value of federal workers. They have been the targets of unending attacks. They’ve been furloughed, laid off and locked out through no fault of their own. I believe federal employees should never be scapegoats in fights over deficit reduction.”

 

“The government shutdown was a real punch in the gut to federal workers who were already reeling from multi-year pay freezes, sequestration cuts and furloughs, as well as threats to health and retirement benefits. These hardworking public servants did not cause our economic crisis, but they paid a heavy price. I’m proud we were able to fulfill our promise to make them whole again with back pay and finally break through the pay freeze with a modest adjustment for next year,” said Senator Cardin. “As they return to doing their work on behalf of the American people, I will continue to fight to keep federal workers from being pawns in every budget battle that lies ahead.”

 

As Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Mikulski fought to ensure the final agreement to reopen the federal government would permit the President to implement his plan for a 1 percent pay raise in January, 2014. Senator Cardin introduced the Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act, which was cosponsored by Senators Mikulski, Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.). The Cardin bill, which was included in the final agreement approved Wednesday, guaranteed that federal workers who were furloughed because of the lapse in federal funding or government shutdown would receive their full pay.

 

Federal employee pay has been frozen for three years with no cost-of-living adjustments, leaving families stressed and stretched. They have been subjected to rolling furloughs since March due to sequester and have also been required to pay 2.3 percent more from their salaries into their retirement plans.

 

Maryland is home to the headquarters of 20 major federal agencies, from the Social Security Administration to the Food and Drug Administration. More than 130,000 federal employees live and work in Maryland, serving the nation and serving the world.

 

The bipartisan legislation passed today funds the government through January 15, 2014 and extends our nation’s debt limit through February 7, 2014. It also starts the budget conference that Democrats have been fighting to start for the past six months so Congress can come together on a long-term solution. The House and the Senate will name conferees and the agreement will call for the budget conference to finish by December 13th. The legislation now moves to the White House to be signed into law by President Obama.

 

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Today’s holiday just another furlough day for many feds

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Officially, today (i.e., Oct. 14, marking Columbus Day) remains on the books as a paid federal holiday. But because of the partial government shutdown, only a limited number of federal employees are scheduled to be paid for it.

Even employees deemed “excepted” (or as many feds put it, “essential”) during the shutdown must take today as an unpaid furlough day unless required to report to work, according to Office of Personnel Management instructions (check out pp. 12 and 13). As OPM puts it in a helpful question-and-answer format:

“Q: Will an ‘excepted’ employee who does not work on a holiday that occurs during a shutdown furlough be paid for the holiday?
A: No. An ‘excepted’ employee who does not work on a holiday will be placed in a furloughstatus for the holiday and will not receive pay for a holiday that occurs during a shutdown furlough unless authorized by subsequent legislation.”
How many people are working today is unclear, although the number is presumably pretty small. An OPM spokesman referred the question to the Office of Management and Budget’s press office, which (assuming it’s open) did not immediately reply to an email.
As Federal Times has previously reported, two bills to assure back pay to furloughed federal employees have unanimously passed the House; both are awaiting Senate action.

 

OMB posts updated shutdown contingency plans

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Earlier today, the Office of Management and Budget posted updated contingency plans on its web site. You can find them here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/contingency-plans

How would your agency handle a shutdown?

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The odds of a partial government shutdown starting Oct. 1 spiked with House Republicans’ decision today to push a 2014 continuing resolution that would also cut off funding for “Obamacare” implementation. What would your agency do? A starting point can be found at the Office of Management and Budget’s website. Back in 2011, (i.e., several crises ago), OMB collected links to the contingency plans for dozens of agencies on a single page and–perhaps presciently–never took them down. Here’s the link:  http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/contingency-plans.

In a memo today, OMB Director Sylvia Burwell told agencies to update those plans, which determine–among many other issues–which employees will be subject to unpaid furloughs.

Of course, even if a shutdown doesn’t materialize, agencies will likely be operating under a continuing resolution that leaves funding at its current post-sequester benchmark–not exactly something to look forward to. Last week, for example, The New York Times reported that the FBI was planning ten furlough days for most of its workforce, accompanied by closings of its headquarters and regional offices on those days.

A bureau spokeswoman wouldn’t confirm those details, but at the FBI Agents Association, President Reynaldo Tariche said today that there is “grave concern” among agents about the potential impact on investigations and other casework.

Shelanski, Tangherlini nominations get the go-ahead from Senate committee

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The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee gave quick approval this afternoon to candidates for two long-vacant executive branch positions.

On voice votes, the panel endorsed the nominations of Dan Tangherlini to head the General Services Administration and Howard Shelanski to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget. Both nominations now go to the full Senate for a final confirmation vote, according to a news release. Tangherlini has been acting head of GSA since April of last year, but President Obama picked him to permanently fill the job only last month. The OIRA post has been unfilled since last August, when Cass Sunstein resigned to return to Harvard University.

[Spelling of Howard Shelanski's name corrected.]

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Volcker pursuing new make-a-difference venture

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Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman and veteran of a couple of blue-ribbon commissions, is launching a nonpartisan initiative with the goals of rebuilding both government performance and public trust in government. “Trust rests on confidence and too often government, at all levels, in the eyes of its citizens, has been unable to respond effectively to the challenges of the day,” he said in a news release this week announcing creation of The Volcker Alliance.

Heading the new organization is Shelley Metzenbaum, who recently departed the Office of Management and Budget, where she had worked since 2009 as associate director for performance and personnel management. Besides sponsoring research on government performance, the alliance will produce “actionable” recommendations for policy development and implementation, according to the release. It will also provide a forum for discussing new ways of strengthening “policy execution at all levels of government.”

The roster of the alliance’s board of directors shows some names that will be familiar to anyone who recalls the National Commission on the Public Service, which Volcker chaired about a decade ago. The board includes four people who served on the commission: former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, and Richard Ravitch, a New Yorker who’s done a lot of different things.

Some other members of the alliance board are ex-OMB Director Alice Rivlin, political scientist Norman Ornstein, former Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chairwoman Sheila Bair (who last year published a book on her experiences during the financial crisis), and Francis Fukuyama, another author probably best-known for his 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” which crunched 19th-century German philosophy and the end of the Cold War.

Assuming you can get everyone in the same room, there should be some interesting discussions–or at least a fun cocktail party.