Fedline

Federal Times Blogs

Max Stier

Bookmark and Share

Max Stier, president and CEO, Partnership for Public Service:

After the threatened government shutdown was averted last month, President Obama wrote a memo to federal workers thanking them for their patience and professionalism during a very trying time.

“You do your jobs without complaint or much recognition. But it is men and women like you who help make America all it is, by responding to the needs of our people, and keeping our country safe and secure,” Obama said.

Those were welcome words, but unfortunately such praise is a rarity these days.

Amid the heated budget battles regarding the size and scope of government, federal workers have become the brunt of much misguided criticism. Instead of being viewed as assets, our nation’s public servants have been unjustly vilified and their value diminished.

These unbalanced conversations and the overblown rhetoric ignore the fact that each and every day, dedicated civil servants across the country are finding solutions to serious problems, assisting Americans in need, keeping us secure and advancing our national interests.

There is a clear disconnect between what Americans hear about their government and what takes place — the routine successes, innovative initiatives, cutting-edge science and other amazing work.

The criticism routinely drowns out the good, begetting increased cynicism and reinforcing mistrust of government.

Recent public opinion polls show that the political haggling that took the nation to the brink of a government shutdown created broad dissatisfaction with the way Washington operates.

But it also had a negative impact on the nation’s 2.1 million federal employees, who lived with great uncertainty and in many cases were told at the last minute that they were nonessential and would be furloughed without a paycheck. This disheartening message came after federal managers had spent weeks preoccupied with making contingency plans for a shutdown rather than focusing on their agencies’ missions.

It was a demoralizing time, one that federal managers should address by re-energizing and re-engaging their employees, and by re-emphasizing the importance of the work that federal employees do for the American people.

After all, our democracy and our well-being depend on the capable people willing to serve their nation and effectively carry out the policies of the president and the Congress. Instead of discouraging and degrading our public employees, we should be motivating them and encouraging top-flight individuals to enter government service.

During the first week of May, we celebrate Public Service Recognition Week to honor the men and women who serve our nation as government employees. It is a good time to redirect the conversation, reflect on the value of public service, and give our civil servants the praise that so many richly deserve, but so seldom receive.

By answering the call to serve our nation, public employees place public service over personal gain. They deserve our support and appreciation.

Shutdown plans now available

Bookmark and Share

Remember the contingency plans that agencies have to prepare for the event of a government shutdown?

Those documents have never been more accessible–now that the immediate threat of a halt to agency operations has passed.

Under a “What’s New” section of its web site dated April 14, the Office of Management and Budget has posted links to more than 50 agency plans. Had the government closed, for example, more than three-quarters of employees in the Executive Office of the President would have been furloughed. At least for now, the prospect of a shutdown has receded since Congress last week approved a government-wide budget for the rest of fiscal 2011.

The new-found availability of the shutdown plans is a shift from only a few weeks ago, when the Obama administration rebuffed pleas from federal employee unions to release them. Late last month, the American Federation of Government Employees sued for access under the Freedom of Information Act.

But while the OMB site suggests that the administration began posting links to the records in one place only last Thursday, budget office spokeswoman Moira Mack said the site actually went up April 8.  On Monday, April 4,  agencies began “reaching out” to federal managers to discuss plans for an orderly shutdown, Mack said in an email, and began fielding employee questions later in the week.

And even if many agency shutdown plans are now only a mouse click away, AFGE will pursue its lawsuit, a spokesman said, to set some “parameters’ for how to handle the information in the future.

Tags: ,

OMB explores open source for IT Dashboard

Bookmark and Share

Following criticisms about inaccurate cost ratings and scheduling information on a White House website, the Office of Management and Budget is turning to software developers for help.

On Thursday, OMB released the software code used to develop the IT Dashboard for two reasons, federal chief information office Vivek Kundra announced in a blog post

“First, to take the platform to the next level, we want to tap into the collective talents and ingenuity of the American people, to enhance functionality, improve the code and address existing challenges such as those identified by David Powner and his team at GAO,” Kundra said. He added that CIOs from the Netherlands, West Virginia, Chicago  and around the world “are all interested in implementing these platforms in their respective organizations.”

OMB launched the IT Dashboard in 2009 to inform the public about the performance of hundreds of large IT projects, but a recent Government Accountability Office report only added to the growing skepticism of the accuracy of such transparency websites. GAO said agencies’ IT managers failed to post project baseline changes or they posted erroneous information. Also, the dashboard’s calculations of some data contributed to the problem.

“Software developers will be able to collaborate, identify errors, develop enhancements, and recommend improvements to the Dashboard, and find new uses for it that we have not even imagined,” Kundra said. He went one to say, “opening up the inner workings of the Dashboard by releasing the code and the TechStat toolkit is only a first step.”

Tags: ,

Wisconsin governor stands up for federal employees. Wait, what?

Bookmark and Share

Is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — probably the most hated man in union circles right now — looking for a second career as a federal union advocate?

Not likely, but in an op-ed posted on the Washington Post’s website, Walker invites readers to “imagine the outrage” of government workers not being able to bargain for wages and benefits, and having to pay 28 percent of their health care costs. The kicker, of course, is that he’s talking about federal employees.

“It’s enough to make you wonder why there are no protesters circling the White House,” Walker wrote.

Actually, Walker’s op-ed is less about standing up for federal employees’ collective bargaining rights than downplaying the gutting to unions Wisconsin Republicans just rammed through the state legislature. (He also somewhat disingenuously characterizes the fact that most government workers cannot collectively bargain for wages and benefits as “what President Obama offers federal employees” — that’s the way federal labor law has been for decades, not Obama’s plan.)

But Walker does touch on some salient points. The average 28 percent of health care premiums federal employees pay is far more than the 12.6 percent Walker mandated Wisconsin workers pay. And feds’ weaker collective bargaining rights did make it easier for Obama and Congress to impose a partial two-year pay freeze. During this ongoing debate over federal compensation and the proper role of public-sector collective bargaining, it’s worth remembering that federal unions, pay and benefits are often very different from their state counterparts.

Tags: ,

Shutdown planning, then and now

Bookmark and Share

With much of the government at risk of a forced vacation next month, there are some obvious parallels with the last such showdown, which resulted in back-to-back closures in late 1995 and early 1996. A bitter battle over spending; a Democratic president pitted against Republican lawmakers, many of them freshmen itching to shrink the federal footprint.

The last time around, though, executive branch preparations appear to have started a lot sooner.

Consider some evidence gleaned from congressional testimony: On August 22, 1995—almost three full months before the first shutdown occurred that November–then-Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin told all department heads to update their shutdown contingency plans within two weeks, according to a memo that was accompanied by a legal opinion outlining what government functions could continue during a “funding hiatus.” The congressional hearing record also shows that at least one agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs, had worked out a deal by September 1995 with the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees on how to handle shutdown-related furloughs.

Now, barely a week before the March 4 expiration of a continuing resolution could trigger a new shutdown, union leaders say they’re still trying to pry basic information out of agencies on how workers would be affected.

The overall status of shutdown preparations is anyone’s guess. Most agencies won’t discuss the subject or release copies of their contingency plans. Asked earlier this week when six major departments, included Defense, Justice, and Agriculture, had most recently updated those plans, the Office of Management and Budget instead provided a statement from chief spokesman Ken Baer that said in part: “OMB is prepared for any contingency as a matter of course — and so are all the agencies.”

A more forthright assessment came from Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue. In a Wednesday email to SSA employees, Astrue wrote:

“The truth is that we do not know what Congress will do. We are working hard to deliver the best possible result from Congress and to carefully manage the money we do receive.

“As we await congressional action, we are doing what we can to minimize the budget uncertainties from interfering with your lives and work. You should know that we are considering a variety of scenarios but we have not made any final decisions. We will do what we can to prevent furloughs caused by not having enough money to pay you. That strategy may mean tough choices like cutting back on or eliminating overtime and expanding the hiring freeze.

“I regret that I cannot give you precise information about what will happen, but I am uncomfortable not letting you know some of the possible outcomes so that you can begin to plan accordingly. Given all of the uncertainty, I encourage you to be careful about believing everything you hear. I will continue to share what we know as more information becomes available.”

Tags: , , ,

Government responses to shutdown questions UPDATE

Bookmark and Share

The Energy, Commerce and Defense departments seem to be on the same page, at least when it comes to handling media inquires about a possible government shutdown.

As a matter of course, here is what the Defense Department sent over:

As a matter of course, the Department of Defense 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. We will do everything we have to do to continue to support the deployed troops. The Department must also continue many other operations necessary for the safety of human life and protection of property. These types of activities will be “exempt” from cessation. All other activities would need to be shut down in an orderly and deliberate fashion.

Federal Times received similiar responses from other agencies…

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 contingenciesIn 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.

Tags:

Government responses to shutdown questions eerily similar

Bookmark and Share

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.


Government cyber-takeover?

Bookmark and Share

Wired magazine reported today that a new bill from Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, currently in draft form, would give the government broad powers to take over responsibility for civilian networks in case of an “imminent cyber threat.”

It’s commendable that legislators are thinking about private networks while making contingency plans for a massive cyber attack. Protecting government IT systems isn’t enough — the vast majority of the country’s infrastructure in this area lies in private hands.

From the Wired report:

“These emergency measures are supposed to remain in place for no more than 30 days. But they can be extended indefinitely, a month at a time. Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , ,

The politics of potties

Bookmark and Share

Federal employees are all too aware of the importance of pay parity. But Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., has set his sights on ending a different inequality: Potty parity.

Towns on March 17 introduced the Restroom Gender Parity in Federal Buildings Act — or as he called it, the Potty Parity Act — which seeks to ensure men and women have equal access to toilets in federal buildings. Towns’ bill, HR 4869, would require any newly constructed, purchased or renovated federal building to have at least a one-to-one ratio of toilets in women’s and men’s restrooms. It would allow buildings to have more women’s toilets than men’s toilets.

The bill counts urinals as toilets too, so a building can’t get away with installing a token toilet bowl in each gender’s restroom and then adding a slew of urinals for the guys.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , ,

You get what you pay for

Bookmark and Share

The State Department “got what it paid for” when it hired embattled contractor ArmorGroup North America to provide security to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, a new report from the Wartime Contracting Commission found.

Unfortunately, the commission also found State had little choice because federal law prohibits the department from choosing security contractors based on performance rather than cost. According to the report:

Unlike other federal agencies, the U.S. Department of State is forbidden by law to select anything but the lowest price and ‘technically acceptable’ offer when awarding contracts to protect its overseas buildings — even if this means passing up offers from firms offering higher quality and better experience. In contingency operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, this prohibition can have negative consequences for security, wartime mission objectives, and America’s image.”

The report comes on the heels of revelations by the Project on Government Oversight that employees of ArmorGroup threw alcohol-fueled parties and forced subordinates to engage in lewd behavior that resulted in high staff turnover and placed embassy officials at risk.

The commission recommended removing the low-price requirement to allow State to select the contractor that will provide the best value.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , ,