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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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:
Federal officials unveiled details of a new public-private partnership aimed at speeding industry’s development of secure information technology products.
The new National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) launched in February is a project of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It aims to bring companies together to create and discuss security management solutions that can be used by agencies and private companies.
Acting Executive Director Donna Dodson on Tuesday said NCCoE’s vision is to provide a world-class collaborative environment for integrating cybersecurity solutions that stimulate economies and national economic groups.
Initially, the center will focus on adopting secure health IT products and gradually focus on other areas such as cloud and mobile computing, based on industry’s needs and challenges.
“We do not envision building our own solution from scratch. What we want to do is work collaboratively … to do that in conjunction with industry,” she said.
Here’s how the center will operate:
Step 1: Engage the business community.
Step 2: Propose “use cases”.
Step 3: Select applicable IT components.
Step 4: Generate feedback and implement new cyber prototype solutions.
To engage businesses, the center plans to conduct what it calls “deep dive” workshops, in which it gathers inputs from a broad variety of groups to address a specific challenge.
The center will engage all participants — small businesses, large businesses, the academic sector and federal agencies alike — to develop an integrated solution that has clear benefits for particular industry sectors. The goal is to find integrated, affordable and useful security tools for all technology consumers.
“Federal agencies are one of those business communities that rely on a commercial product to build infrastructures that support their business needs,” said Matt Scholl, deputy chief of NIST’s Computer Security Division.
The need is especially great in the health care arena. A collaborative, “use case” example was the work NCCoE has done with Health IT solutions with the Health and Human Services Department.
NIST Director Dr. Patrick Gallagher said that between 2005 and 2008, 230 million electronic records were breached, which included 40 million electronic medical records, according to the American National Standards Institute. In November 2001, a study showed 96 percent of healthcare providers responding to a survey reported at least one data breach in the last two years.
The $10 million center operates at a state-of-the-art computing facility near NIST’s Gaithersburg, Md., campus.
View video from the NIST workshop
As a key deadline draws nearer, the Senior Executives Association continues to press its case against Internet posting of top career federal officials’ financial disclosure reports. That recently enacted requirement is set to kick in by the end of August for some 28,000 Senior Executive Service members, political appointees, and military general and flag officers. In a six-page paper released today, SEA urges a delay in implementation “for careful consideration” of the potential impact, followed by action to exclude career feds if the case against the new mandate “is as one-sided as we believe.”
Among the association’s arguments: Online access will increase the risk of identity theft, give criminal gangs access to federal officials’ personal financial information and make it harder to attract talent to the Senior Executive Service. While the organization has raised most of these points before, the paper represents its most detailed critique to date. Already, the new rules are leading many senior executives to consider retirement or reverting to a GS-15 level, according to the paper.
“The audience is obviously both Congress and the administration and frankly just to get more people thinking about this,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro said in a phone interview. The association is also exploring the possibility of a lawsuit on Privacy Act grounds, she said.
The online disclosure requirement is part of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, signed in April mainly to ensure that lawmakers don’t use inside information to fatten their portfolios. Along the way, however, someone in the House (just who isn’t clear) decided it would be a good idea to make it easier for the public to see the annual disclosure reports filed by Executive Branch officials. Although those reports–officially known as Office of Government Ethics Form 278s–are already public, they have generally been available only on paper via a written request. As a rule, agencies haven’t made it easy to access them. Even finding out who has to file can be a chore.
But as SEA notes, the new requirement was added without so much as a congressional hearing. While Office of Government Ethics officials had hoped to issue implementing guidance to agencies by the end of April, that task has apparently turned out to be harder than expected. Almost two months later, OGE isn’t saying when that advice might come. Eventually, the ethics office is supposed to build a central website to house the reports. Until then, agencies are supposed to post them on their own sites.
Incidentally, another STOCK Act deadline is just two weeks away: As of July 3, federal officials covered by the Form 278 filing requirements must divulge stock purchases and other transactions worth more than $1,000 within 45 days. Until now, they have only had to report those transactions once a year.
The Project On Government Oversight launched a new web page today to track how long agencies have been left without inspectors general, hoping to spur government officials to appoint leadership to the watchdog roles as soon as possible.
“Congress and the public rely on [Offices of Inspectors General] reports to hold agencies and individuals accountable for wrongdoing, identify a need for legislation, and evaluate the effectiveness of government programs and policies,” POGO says on the site.
The longest vacancy has been at the State Department, which has operated more than four years without a permanent inspector general, the website shows. This is at a time when the department has taken on the responsibility of managing private security contractors in war zones, POGO said in a news release.
Currently, 12 agencies operate without an appointed IG. Six agencies have IG positions that have been vacant for more than a year.
Acting IGs are generally less effective than appointed IGs because they are considered to be temporary, so they are less likely to take a strong leadership role and set long-term priorities, POGO says. Appointed IGs have to undergo significant vetting — especially those that require Senate confirmation — which helps instill confidence that the position is truly independent, the group says.
If there were ever a time for the federal government to recognize the value of new approaches and ideas, this would be it.
But at most major federal agencies, fewer than half of employees believe that’s actually happening, according to a survey analysis released today by the Partnership for Public Service.
The two exceptions were NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where more than 60 percent of respondents agreed that “creativity and innovation are rewarded.” At the three military services and 23 agencies, however, the comparable ratios were below 50 percent and at a couple—including the Transportation Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—they were below one-third.
At the bottom was the Securities and Exchange Commission, where just 28.4 percent of responding employees saw such incentives for innovation.
That’s the same SEC that’s picking up a slew of new responsibilities under the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul signed last year. In an email, spokesman John Nester touted the fact that–in response to another survey question–nearly 9 in 10 SEC staffers said they were “constantly looking for ways to do their jobs better.” The agency is “looking for ways to better encourage and reward them for that,” Nester added.
The analysis draws on data from last year’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which attracted responses from more than 250,000 full-time permanent feds. At every agency covered, overwhelming majorities of respondents said they were “constantly” looking for ways to do their jobs better. At most, more than half said that they felt encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.
“We have a work force that is individually motivated to try new things to succeed and they’re not receiving either leadership or organizational support in trying to be creative and innovative,” Partnership President Max Stier said in a phone interview. “That’s a problem.”
The analysis singles out a half-dozen conditions–such as involving employees in decisions that affect their work–that help drive innovation. And probably managers at just about every federal agency would claim that they’re all for getting away from business as usual. So is there a disconnect between lip service and reality? What do you think?
The staff over here at Federal Times are getting a sense of deja vu from agency responses to our questions about a possible government shutdown.
Here is a response from the Energy Department (Emphasis added).
As a matter of course, our agency plans for contingencies, but this is besides the point since, as the bipartisan congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the President has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown. The Department is working with both sides on Capitol Hill to fund the government and keep its vital services and functions operating.
Here is the response from the Commerce Department:
As a matter of course, the Commerce Department plans for contingencies. In fact, since 1980, all agencies have had to have a plan in case of a government shutdown, and these plans are updated routinely. All of this is beside the point since, as the bipartisan congressional leadership has said on a number of occasions and as the President has made clear, no one anticipates or wants a government shutdown. The administration will work with both sides on Capitol Hill to fund the government and keep its vital services and functions operating.
Somehow I doubt that these two public affairs people at these two agencies came up with the exact same phrasing and punctuation.
I will post questions to each of these agencies and will update if I get a response.