Federal Times Blogs

How has mobile technology impacted your work-life balance?

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Are you a chronic smartphone or tablet user, who regularly checks emails and conducts business outside of normal work hours? Federal Times wants to hear from you.

How has this technology impacted your work-life balance? Are you a federal employee, manager or contractor, who knows when to power off, or are you struggling to keep personal and work issues separate? Please comment below or contact Nicole Blake Johnson at 703-750-8145 or njohnson@federaltimes.com


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How far is too far when it comes to monitoring your government computer?

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Certain employee communications are protected by law. But does that mean everything else is fair game?

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what is appropriate electronic monitoring and what you consider to be overreaching? Have you set personal restrictions for using your government computer in order to keep personal matters private and/or shielded from any sort of inadvertent or targeted monitoring?

You can comment below or contact me directly. Thanks.



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As the federal workforce shrinks, how are you coping?

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The latest statistics on the federal workforce provide the strongest proof yet that government employment has peaked and is on its way down. USA Today reported that the federal workforce in April was down 11,600 employees from the same time last year.

This change shouldn’t come as much surprise — budgets are contracting, and many agencies have offered buyouts over the last year and a half to help deal with the tight fiscal environment. But Federal Times is wondering what this new reality means on the ground, for front-line workers who have to actually get the government’s work done.

Have you seen your office’s workforce contract over the last year or two? How has that affected you? Have you and your colleagues had to pick up duties that used to be done by departed workers? Are some duties that you’d like to get done falling between the cracks? Or have your supervisors decided to pull back and discontinue some missions?

We’d like to hear from you. E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to speak off the record, that’s fine.

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Lack of foreign language skills, education called ‘a national disgrace’

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The state of foreign language education in the United States remains abysmal, and is endangering the federal government’s ability to operate in a multinational world, a panel of senior government officials testified today.

Only 30 percent of American high school students and 8 percent of post-high school students are enrolled in a foreign language today, Eduardo Ochoa, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for postsecondary eduction, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce.

And foreign language education is getting worse, Ochoa said. In the 1960s, 17 percent of post-high school students were enrolled in a foreign language.

When you look at less-commonly taught languages — such as Dari and Pashto, which are the two major languages spoken in Afghanistan — the numbers grow even more dim. Only 1 percent of post-high school students are learning such rare languages.

Glen Nordin, who is the principal foreign language advisor for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, is especially frustrated that many government leaders are seemingly unaware of the gaps in their agencies’ foreign language capabilities — and how those holes are affecting their missions.

“The biggest difficulty we face … is that our leadership is as unaware of the needs for languages within their organizations as the general populace is failing to be aware of the needs for languages in their community,” Nordin said. “It is a national disgrace in that respect, and it’s that lack of knowledge that we need to correct. We need to find a way to communicate to our people just how important that interpreter/translator at the social services office is to a community’s well-being.”

And Tracey North, the deputy assistant director of the FBI’s intelligence directorate, pointed out that we don’t know what will be the government’s most pressing foreign language need 20 years down the line, which makes the shallow state of foreign language education even more frightening.

Her comments were a good reminder of how quickly the world — and the government’s critical skill needs — can change. After all, in 1981, the Cold War was still on and the CIA’s experts were still largely focused on translating Russian. Few would have predicted that two decades later, that focus would suddenly switch to Dari and Pashto.


CHCOs: Supervisors must do better on poor performers

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Federal supervisors aren’t doing nearly enough to hold poor performers accountable — or keep them from ending up as poor performers in the first place, two chief human capital officers said today.

Reginald Wells of the Social Security Administration and Jeri Buchholz of NASA, speaking at Government Executive’s Excellence in Government conference, agreed that managers need to be more willing to take action when an employee isn’t cutting it. Maybe that means retraining that employee to get him up to snuff, Wells said, or punishing him. But a manager might only need to “call it as it is” and let the employee know he’s falling behind, Wells said.

But supervisors also need to look at themselves, and consider whether they’re managing the employee properly, Wells said:

Very often they end up poor performers because we fail them. We don’t engage them, or they get put on the back burner. There are all kinds of reasons why people become poor performers. We really do have to put an emphasis on how to reach them, give them an opportunity to cure, and if not, encourage them to want other careers or leave government. Because with things being so lean, the days of putting somebody on that back burner are gone. We need everybody engaged, and committed to the mission.

Buchholz said that while she thinks Congress needs to pass legislation making it easier for managers to hold poor performers accountable — though she didn’t say what that should be — she said managers already have many tools that they’re not using:

We have the ability to remove people under [Chapter] 75 actions for performance — we don’t do it. We have the ability to downgrade people, to get them into a job that they can do well. Never seen that in 30 years. So I think there are things that we could do that we’re not actually doing, and we should really contemplate.

But it all starts with better training of supervisors, Wells said.

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Could RIFs be the lesser of two evils?

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Former intelligence CHCO Ron Sanders

For more than a year, cash-strapped agencies across the government have been offering buyouts and early outs to reduce their payrolls. Several of those agencies said it’s better to cut the rolls voluntary to avoid messy, morale-killing layoffs, or reductions-in-force for those who speak government-ese.

But at today’s Excellence in Government conference, a common refrain emerged: The dreaded RIF may be unavoidable — and may even be a better tool for managing the workforce than buyouts and early outs.

“The R-word — RIF — has its place, because it is the most surgical,” said Ron Sanders, the intelligence community’s former chief human capital officer. “I know that sounds harsh. I don’t mean it to be. But if you’re trying to protect critical skills, that’s an option you can’t take off the table.”

Reginald Wells, the Social Security Administration’s CHCO, echoed Sanders in a later session at the conference, sponsored by Government Executive:

Most of us in the human capital world would probably rather not go there, if we can avoid it. I hope not. But I don’t think you can afford to invalidate any legitimate tool. If you tinker around the edges and you still end up with a problem, when you could have had a reduction in force … if you can just sometimes make a cut, and be done with that particular problem, you’re better off.

The problem with buyouts and early outs, Sanders said, is that agencies have limited control over who will leave. There’s no guarantee the people an agency is trying to get rid of will take the offer, Sanders said. And there’s a risk that, unless the offer is narrowly targeted, the agency could lose some vital employees.

A RIF “sometimes does the least harm,” Sanders said. “But these things take time to heal.” The IRS’ remaining workforce was still talking about their 1995 RIF six years later, he said. And those left behind sometimes experience survivor’s guilt.

Wells stressed to Federal Times that SSA is not considering RIFs, and said he hopes other agencies will be able to make it through the current budget crunch without having to take that step.

But with federal agencies already stretched thin, sequestration looming, and current and former HR officials openly discussing the possible necessity of RIFs, could this be the next shoe to drop?

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Fed up with anti-fed attitudes? We want to hear from you

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Public Service Recognition Week — traditionally a week to recognize the good that government employees do for the nation — comes at a dour time for federal employees this year. House Republicans are intent on cutting their take-home pay by 5 percent. President Obama has proposed his own 1.2 percent pension contribution hike. Cash-strapped agencies are scrambling to cut their workforces. Pay has been frozen for two years, and a third may be coming down the line. And GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is swiping at their “unfair” pay and benefits.

How do you feel about being a public servant right now? Have the constant attacks and anger against federal employees demoralized you? Are you feeling less effective in your job? Or are you thinking about getting out of government service altogether?

And if you’re a manager, has the anti-fed atmosphere made it more difficult to manage your office and accomplish its mission?

We’d like to hear from you. Write to us at slosey@federaltimes.com or amedici@federaltimes.com to share your thoughts.

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Retirements continue to rise — what’s it mean for you?

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The latest pension processing stats from the Office of Personnel Management contained an interesting nugget on retirement trends. Namely, that they’re continuing to rise in 2012, after shooting up 24 percent in 2011.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Agencies are offering federal employees buyouts and early outs left and right to deal with limited budgets. And with Congress constantly threatening to further freeze feds’ pay, increase their retirement contributions, or switch to a high-5, many feds are beating a path to the door.

Federal Times would like to hear from you about the still-increasing retirement trend, and how it touches you. Are your co-workers dropping left and right lately, and is that hurting your agency’s ability to get its mission done? Or are you yourself planning to retire soon, and why?

Write me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. I’m interested in hearing from managers as well as rank-and-file employees. If you want to stay anonymous, that’s fine.

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For the first time, fed satisfaction survey will be open to (nearly) all

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The Office of Personnel Management this year plans to more than triple the amount of federal employees invited to take the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. More than 1.8 million permanent feds — both full-time and part-time — will be surveyed beginning in April, OPM said in a memo sent to agencies Jan. 20 and posted online today.

That’s a lot, but — and maybe I’m just picking nits here — it isn’t quite the full, governmentwide census OPM is touting, since there are roughly 2.1 million employees in the federal government (not counting U.S. Postal Service employees).

OPM said it doesn’t plan to hold such an expansive survey every year, but “having large numbers of respondents will allow agencies the opportunity to analyze results and develop action plans at lower levels in the organization this year.”

Last year’s survey, which was answered by about 266,000 feds, showed satisfaction dropped in key areas and suggested budget battles were starting to take a toll on morale. The 2012 survey could show whether that trend is continuing — and is a major cause for alarm — or whether it was just a fluke.

What do you think? Are you feeling more or less satisfied than you were last year?


Three awesome government jobs you have probably never heard of

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#3 Job Title: Criminal Investigator

Agency: National Archives and Records Administration

The National Archives contains billions of documents and items that make up our nations cultural and political heritage. Presidential letters, military documents and even secret stuff regular folk like us cannot see (except perhaps Nicholas Cage). And sometimes people take documents from those archives and try to sell them.

The investigators comb the Internet, follow up on tips and travel to places such as Gettysburg, Pa., to look for documents, gather tips and educate traders at antique shows. Civil War documents are a ripe area for people trying to profit from government records, as there is high interest in items from that war.

Every so often, a news story about the team’s efforts bubbles to the surface, most recently when IG officers teamed with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Montgomery County, Md., police department in a raid on a former Archives employee’s home, seizing boxes of documents.

That’s right. Taking back those documents. So if you have ever watched “National Treasure” and thought to yourself, “I could definitely do a better job tracking down our nation’s documents, then this might be the career for you.

#2 Job Title:Bartender

Department:Department of the Army

So you have probably already heard of this job. But not for the Army, perhaps. According to the job title, the bartender “Operates a small full-service bar, mixing and serving the full range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.”

Sounds about right.

#1. Job Title:Biological Science Tech (Bison)

Agency:National Park Service

So there is nothing about this job I do not like. You travel across Yellowstone National Park (by ski, snowshoe or snowmobile) and use radio telemetry to locate buffalo/bison in rough terrain. You take notes about their locations and take biological samples for later study. You work in field laboratories and will assist in studying the vital statistics of individual bison.

And you will also have to watch out for grizzly bears. Seriously. Bears. (Here’s a full quote)

WORK ENVIRONMENT: This work is performed primarily outdoors, in cold conditions with ice and snow, with bison, elk, wolves, and coyotes very likely to be encountered, with a possibility of grizzly or black bears.

I can only imagine the job looks something like this…