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Want to honor good work by a federal employee?

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Do you work with or know a federal employee who has made a particularly noteworthy contribution to the public good?

Then ’tis the season to put in a nomination for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies) at servicetoamericamedals.org. The deadline is Jan. 17.

The medals, given out by the Partnership for Public Service, span eight categories, including career achievement; science and environment; and homeland security and law enforcement. Three main criteria will be used in choosing the winners: On-the-job innovation; commitment to public service and impact of their work on meeting the needs of the nation, the partnership said in a news release. Any career fed is eligible to be nominated.

Thirty finalists will be honored at a Capitol Hill awards ceremony during Public Service Recognition Week in the spring; recognition for the winners will come at a black-tie dinner next fall.

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Attorneys for indigent federal defendants face pay cut

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A $15 hourly pay cut is coming for lawyers in private practice who represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases.

The looming cut, effective Sept. 1, will lower the hourly rate for so-called “panel attorneys” in most cases from $125 per hour to $110 per hour, said Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. For lawyers working on behalf of defendants facing the death penalty, the change will take their hourly compensation from $178 to $163.

The reductions, signaled in a letter released today from William Traxler, chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, are intended to spare federal defender organizations from having to resort to furloughs or reductions-in-force in fiscal 2014, said Redmond, who did not have a dollar figure on how much could be saved through lower fees. While the reductions are currently scheduled to stay in effect through September 2014, that may change “if we get sufficient funding,” she said.

Like other federal agencies, the court system could be subject to a fiscal 2014 continuing resolution that freezes its budget at this year’s  post-sequester level starting in October. In a letter to congressional leaders last week, 87 federal judges pleaded for funding above that threshold.

Also worried is the American Bar Association. “Current funding cuts due to sequestration are already threatening access to justice for so many,” ABA President James Silkenat said in a statement to FedLine. If those reductions continue, he added, the judicial conference will have to implement “dire cutbacks” across federal court operations that “among other things, will jeopardize the Sixth Amendment rights to effective counsel and a speedy trial for low-income defendants.”

 

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U.S. military’s Afghan HQ opens just in time for possible demolition

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$34 million military building

Photo courtesy, SIGAR

By one estimate, it’s one of the best constructed facilities in Afghanistan, but soon the $34 million military center in Hemland province could be torn down because, well, it turns out troops are leaving and the U.S. government might not have really needed the building in the first place.

Special Office of Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko outlined the scope and history of the expensive problem in a letter this week to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, which you can read about here.

But for a virtual tour of the building’s clean, spacious and barren offices and meeting rooms, the IG’s office has posted a set of photos online.

No doubt, it’s a spacious facility, but there’s just one thing missing: people.

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A background checker’s checkered past

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Ramon Davila is one name in a growing list.

He’s among the nearly two dozen federal background check investigators to face criminal charges in recent years for falsifying his work on investigations performed on contractors and employees seeking government clearances.

But more than year after charging Davila, the Justice Department only just learned that he had a troubling past that went unnoticed during his own background investigation.

It turns out, officials at another federal law enforcement agency decided nearly a decade ago to keep out of his personnel folder serious misconduct findings against Davila stemming from his years as a senior special agent with the Customs Service, records show. In return, Davila agreed to retire.

You can read the story of how Davila’s case fits into the growing backlog of federal background investigator falsification cases here. But for a closer, firsthand look at the misconduct findings against him and how such a settlement deal could have come about in the first place, check out the federal court filing.

Is this sort of exit deal in federal agencies unusual? Or more common than we think?

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When contract talks get heated, who’s in charge?

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Time and time again, big contractors went over the heads of General Service Administration contracting officers who were trying to negotiate good prices for the government.

But when it came time to choose, GSA supervisors sided with the contractors.

That’s the conclusion of recent GSA Office of Inspector report that raises troubling questions about the enormous pressure contracting officers can come under from contractors with close ties to managers and even members of Congress.

While GSA says it’s got new management and won’t tolerate such interference nowadays, the bigger questions are whether this sort of thing happens elsewhere, not just in GSA but in other agencies? Do lawmakers get involved? And when negotiations get heated, are contracting officers fully in charge or do contractors have outsized influence?

If there’s more to this story, let me know at jmcelhatton@federaltimes.com or (703) 750-8659.

Contract flaws found in GSA Disney trip

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More than half of the attendees at a big training meeting in 2011 for the General Services Administration’s acquisition arm hailed from the Washington area, but when it came time to figure out a location, officials headed to sunny Orlando instead.

As outlined in a memo released by the GSA’s Inspector General this week, a review found that Federal Acquisition Service officials settled on a contract proposal for conference planning and training that came to nearly a quarter million dollars, while the next highest vendor proposed just $79,784.

Despite the price, the IG found that officials essentially steered the conference to the Disney Institute by cutting and pasting from the request for quotation of a GSA leadership conference held months earlier by the FAS office in Atlanta. Three other vendors were rated poor and disqualified.

“This indicates that the competition may have been restricted since the requirements in the work statement could not be meet by other potential vendors,” James P. Hayes, deputy assistant IG, concluded in a May 15 memo to FAS Commissioner Thomas A. Sharpe, Jr., who was not in charge of FAS at the time.

Overall, the Florida conference conference cost $164,000, while 58-percent of the 155 attendees came from the Washington area, the IG found.

In am email, Dan Cruz, a spokesman for GSA, said the activity took place in 2011 and “would not be tolerated today.”

He said Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who also was not with GSA at the time, has enacted reforms leading to greater oversight of travel, conference spending and related procurement activities.

“Over the past year, GSA has cancelled more than 50 conferences,” Cruz said. “These internal reforms, including cuts in travel and conference spending, have led to $73 million in savings.”

Tangherlini was named head of GSA after the former chief, Martha Johnson, resigned amid embarrassing disclosures of lavish, taxpayer-funded conferences, including a now infamous gathering in Las Vegas that cost more than $800,000 and featured a red carpet party and a mind reader.

When late isn’t really late

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On Nov. 27, 2012, at 3:38 p.m., an employee at Insight Systems Corp., which was bidding on a health services contract, submitted a revised quote to two employees inside the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The deadline for doing so was 5 p.m.

The message reached the first of three agency-controlled servers at 3:41 p.m., but then it got stuck. And it wasn’t until 5:18 p.m. that the email reached the first USAID employee, while the second employee didn’t receive the message until 5:57 p.m.

Around the same time, an employee at another company, CenterScope, which was submitting its own revised quote, sent a submission to the same USAID employees at 4:39 p.m., but that email did not reach the intended recipients until 5:15 p.m. and 6:08 p.m., respectively.

Too late, right?

Not according to U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Francis Allegra.

In a 22-page opinion released Monday, Allegra rules in favor of both contractors in a recent complaint against USAID.

Aside from calling USAID’s decision to reject the quotes because they were late “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law,” the ruling — in case you’re interested — provides a road map of a typical email message through a maze of internal servers.

In this case, the emails were received and accepted by the USAID’s internal server, but they got stuck there for a while and weren’t forwarded to the next server because of an internal error.

The delays lasted as long as more than two hours, but none of the messages made it to their final recipients by the 5 p.m. deadline.

Still, USAID sent both contractors letters days later saying their quotes wouldn’t be considered because, after all, late is late.

Allegra disagreed, sharply

He went so far as to say USAID approached the question of the timeliness of electronic submission “with the zeal of a pedantic school master awaiting a term paper.”

He also ruled that couldn’t see any reason why possession of the quotes couldn’t be effectuated through a government computer server any less than through a clerk in a mail room.

In the end, Allegra’s ruling bars USAID from making an award unless it accepts quotes from both contractors.

Or, he ruled, USAID could start all over with a new procurement.

Federal law enforcement group urges lawmakers to cancel recess

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The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association came out today with a simple plea to Congress: Keep working.

“I am respectfully asking all members of Congress to holster their blame-pointing fingers, and get back to the table to come up with a comprehensive deficit reduction plan that won’t debilitate federal law enforcement,” FLEOA President Jon Adler said in a news release.

That appeal comes as lawmakers are preparing to trade Capitol Hill for the campaign trail as early as this weekend, with no plans to be back before mid-November. That will be almost two months in which they won’t be working to avert across-the-board budget cuts set to take effect Jan. 2. Those cuts would vaporize about $109 billion from agency budgets next year, including more than $3 billion in law enforcement funding, according to a recent White House report.

To avert the reductions, lawmakers and the Obama administration will have to come up with a way of reducing future federal budget deficits by $1.2 trillion through 2021. The assumption is that a deal will get done, but, of course, no one really knows for sure.

Adler’s also a bit frustrated with the Executive Branch. FLEOA claims members in 65 agencies and, to date, he said in an interview, none of those agencies has explained how they would handle the cuts, formally known as sequestration. The only official Office of Management and Budget guidance, which came out in July, told agencies to keep spending at normal levels “since more than five months remain for Congress to act.”

To Adler,  that’s like burying your head in the sand and hoping “the wave doesn’t sprinkle your backside.

“That’s not the way to prepare for a worst-case scenario.”

 

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But we’ve always done it that way . . .

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Thinking new–so hard to do.

Set it to music and that might be the refrain of a new report on how federal workers view their agencies’ attitude toward the cutting edge.

Only about 40 percent of feds believe that agencies reward creativity and innovation, the Partnership for Public Service found. And although more than nine out of ten say they are looking for fresh approaches to doing their jobs better, just 59 percent feel encouragement from higher-ups “to come up with new and better ways of doing things.” In the private-sector workforce, the comparable figure is 71 percent.

Overall, the report, titled “Achieving a Culture of Innovation,” reflects little change from a similar review released last year.

“The numbers aren’t getting better and they should be,” Partnership President Max Stier said in a Monday interview. “Government is going to need to be supportive of a more innovative culture if we’re going to meet the crushing demands that are being placed on it.”

The report taps 266,000 responses to last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to come up with agency-by-agency innovation scores. Among 30 large agencies, NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were again the only two to rank above 70. The government’s cumulative score was about 63, virtually the same as last year’s.

The Office of Personnel Management saw the most improvement, as its rating rose 4 percent to 63. Conversely, the Agency for International Development’s score slumped 5 percent to around 64. The Securities and Exchange Commission again came in last; its score of 53 was down more than 2 percent from last year.

That seems particularly surprising (and alarming), given that the SEC helps to oversee a ceaselessly evolving financial services industry that almost plunged the nation into an economic depression four years ago. Here’s how SEC spokesman John Nester responded via a prepared statement:

“These rankings are based on outdated data that does not reflect a series of measures we’ve put in place to encourage innovative ideas and creative thinking, including a new technology center that encourages staff to work smarter through innovation and data analytics, specialized units that enable staff to better share ideas to become more efficient, and recognition for those employees who come up with ways to improve how we operate.”

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VA career tool may be example for other agencies

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Veterans Affairs Department employees have had access to one of the government’s best career-development tools since October.

Soon, you may see something like it coming to your agency.

Last week, top VA officials demonstrated the tool — called MyCareer@VA — at a meeting of administration and union leaders.

“When you think about your own career, there are times that you want to figure out how to get ahead, but there are also times that you may feel like you’re stuck and want to do something else,” said VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould as he presented the website July 18 to a meeting of the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, led by Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.

Gould and Alice Muellerweiss, dean of the VA Learning University, said the website helps employees hurdle common career setbacks.

“We know that the number one reason people leave their organizations is because they cannot see their path, they cannot chart their path, they can’t set their goals, and they don’t set up their development plan,” Muellerweiss said.

The website, MyCareerAtVA.va.gov, prompts employees to plug in their skills and experience and then provides them a variety of jobs throughout the department that — with some additional training and education — could be a fit for them down the road.

Among the website’s key features:

  • MyCareer Mapping Tool. This searches for jobs across multiple occupational families and outlines what competencies, knowledge areas and skills are needed to reach an employee’s career goal.
  • MyCareer Fit Tool. This helps match specific jobs to an employee’s self-identified career interests and work environment preferences.
  • VA Career Guides. This offers employees detailed profiles of suggested jobs and offices they might consider as future steps on their career paths. For each job, it outlines what education, licensing, recommended training, and developmental experiences are recommended, based on the user’s profile.

The website is still growing and developing. Its searchable jobs inventory is about 75 percent complete and VA managers aim to get that figure to 100 percent of mission-critical jobs by next April.

OPM’s Berry said some agencies are looking at adopting similar career-development tools and looking specifically at the VA tool as a possible role model.

To learn more about MyCareer@VA, view the video below: