Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to step down at the end of March opens up one more Cabinet position in the second Obama administration — and may present an opportunity for Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry.
While Berry is most known these days for his focus on federal hiring, pensions and other personnel matters, nature issues are especially close to his heart. He was director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park before Obama tapped him to run OPM, and prior to that, served as executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. He also served as Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget during the Clinton administration.
The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reported in a profile of Berry last fall that his friends say he is seeking the job. If selected and confirmed, Berry would be the first openly gay man to serve in a presidential Cabinet.
But when I asked Berry this morning if he had talked to Obama about running Interior, he was tight-lipped:
No comment. At this point, I stand ready to serve the President in any capacity he desires.
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.”
Although wide swaths of the Washington DC area remain powerless and sweltering after Friday night’s derecho storm, the federal government will be open tomorrow, the Office of Personnel Management just said.
However, non-emergency essential employees in the DC area will have the option of taking unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework if they choose, OPM said.
(But speaking for myself, I can’t imagine why anybody without power would want to stay home this week. Even the worst job sounds pretty good when outdoor temperatures are hovering near 100 and the office has AC.)
You can check Dominion Power’s work schedule here. If you’re without power, we hope you stay cool and hydrated. And remember, if you come up on a powerless traffic light, treat it like a four-way stop sign.
Karen Golinski, a lesbian federal employee, won a major court victory in February when a federal judge ruled that the government had to extend health benefits to her same-sex wife. But other gay and lesbian feds won’t be able to benefit from Golinski’s victory at this time.
The Office of Personnel Management in March ordered Blue Cross Blue Shield to cover Golinski’s wife, Amy Cunninghis. But today, OPM sent a notice out on its listserv that said the Golinski ruling does not apply to anyone else.
“OPM has been directed by the Department of Justice to continue applying the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to all other situations,” OPM said. “Therefore, if you receive a request to enroll a same-sex spouse, you are still precluded by DOMA from processing the enrollment request or sending it to the [Federal Employees Health Benefits] Plan.”
OPM has been in an awkward position for some time regarding health benefits for same-sex spouses. OPM Director John Berry is gay, and has repeatedly said he thinks gay and lesbian feds’ spouses should be covered. But Section 3 of DOMA prevents the government from legally recognizing same-sex marriages, which bars gay feds’ husbands and wives from FEHBP. The Justice Department last year said it believes DOMA is unconstitutional and it would no longer defend the law. And last July, Justice backed Golinski’s case in a brief that amounted to a mea culpa for the government’s “significant and regrettable” history of persecuting gay and lesbian employees. (Go back and read that blog, and this one for some background on how gay and lesbian feds were treated. It’s pretty startling.)
But even though the Obama administration may want to extend health care to gay and lesbian feds’ spouses, it now seems pretty clear that won’t happen until DOMA is repealed or struck down.
Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry’s plan to fix its longstanding pension processing problem got a relatively warm reception on Capitol Hill today. But there were some red flags raised, not least of which is the incredibly sprawling and antiquated set of IT systems and paper-based processes that the government relies upon to calculate new retirees’ pensions. OPM doesn’t have a real plan for straightening it out, the Government Accountability Office said, and needs to do more.
For example: OPM has 80 legacy systems that have to talk to roughly 400 other systems across the rest of the government, IG Patrick McFarland said. And those systems rely on roughly 3 million lines of custom code. If OPM decides to change or repair something in those systems, McFarland said, that is difficult to modify because the agency has to sift through all 3 million lines to find the one line in particular that needs tweaking.
Berry said some systems still even use COBOL, believe it or not, a dinosaur of a programming language that was first introduced 50 years ago.
As a result of all the IT problems, calculating pension payments is still largely a paper-and-pencil process — one that is made much more difficult when agencies don’t submit all the necessary documents. Which is what usually happens.
GAO’s Valerie Melvin also said that OPM’s plan “does not describe whether or how the agency intends to modify or decommission the over 80 legacy systems that support retirement processing.” She wants OPM to take a broader look at its overall IT system structure, and formulate a concrete plan for how it will straighten things out. ”There’s a lot more OPM can do,” Melvin said.
Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee praised Berry for putting the plan forward, and IG McFarland said OPM is now on the right track.
But consultant George Nesterczuk, a former OPM official, blasted Berry for abandoning a full-scale, IT-based modernization of the retirement process and instead relying heavily on adding people. Although the previous administration’s Retirement Systems Modernization strategy that relied on commercial technologies crashed and burned in 2008, Nesterczuk said it “was a sound strategy and it should receive renewed consideration.”
In the meantime, pressure is mounting on OPM. Berry said OPM received 21,000 new retirement applications in January — traditionally the busiest month — which swelled the backlog to 62,000. But there was a bright spot last month — Berry said OPM processed 20 percent more cases this January than in January 2011, which he sees as proof the reforms are already taking hold.
He also pledged to report the size of the backlog to Congress on the fifth day of each month.
[Updated blog post to clarify that OPM's processing problems are a result of all of its IT difficulties.]
As of this Sunday, the National Security Personnel System is officially defunct.
In a Federal Register notice published today, the Office of Personnel Management and the Defense Department report that they are repealing the regulations accompanying the controversial pay-for-performance system effective Jan. 1. The repeal is basically just housekeeping; the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act ended the legal authority for the NSPS and declared that any existing regs would be toast by the beginning of 2012.
Should anyone need a refresher on what the very long-running flap was about, incidentally, this Federal Times article offers a good recap.
Here’s a heads up for all of our readers: Tomorrow morning, the Office of Personnel Management is planning to unveil next year’s premiums for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Check back in at FederalTimes.com sometime after 11 a.m. Tuesday for the news on how your health care costs will change in 2012.
The White House has also tucked a proposal into its $3 trillion deficit reduction proposal to overhaul how the government buys prescription drugs for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. On page 43 of its report, the administration calls for allowing the Office of Personnel Management to contract directly with pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, for prescription drugs. PBMs are companies that negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of FEHBP’s insurance providers. But PBMs are not considered subcontractors, and as a result, OPM has little oversight of them and cannot be sure they pass on rebates (of as much as 50 percent of the drugs’ retail cost) to FEHBP enrollees.
The White House says the current “fragmented strategy [using PBMs] does not take full advantage of the combined purchasing power of the nearly eight million enrollees in the FEHB program.” It projects the move would save $1.6 billion over a decade.
The Government Accountability Office today released a report that found 46 percent of enrollees in the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program who were facing steep premium hikes elected to make no changes and accept 24 percent premium increases. Those 67,511 enrollees are now paying an extra $28.54 per month on average.
The Office of Personnel Management was blasted in 2009 when it announced up to 155,000 enrollees — who were under the assumption they had signed up for an option that would protect them against those sudden hikes — would pay a lot more for their benefits. This came as a shock to many enrollees, some of whom said they might drop out of the program rather than pay the increase.
But very few people ended up doing that. Only 2,344 enrollees — less than 2 percent of those affected — let their coverage lapse.
The remaining 76,560 made some kind of change. Some scaled back to keep costs down, but others increased their coverage and ended up paying a lot more. GAO said that 29,340 kept their old coverage and opted for reduced inflation protection, which actually decreased their premiums by 12 cents on average. Another 37,648 upgraded to an expanded coverage plan and also scaled back their inflation protection. Their average monthly premiums went up 1 percent, or $2.14.
But participants who chose to keep their old inflation protection and take the expanded coverage saw the steepest hikes. Their average monthly premiums increased by 38 percent, or $40.56.
All in all, the average long term care premium increased 14 percent, or $16.30 per month.
- Health benefits and life insurance coverage will continue during a shutdown, as long as the shutdown doesn’t last more than a year.
- But furloughed employees may lose their long-term care, dental and vision coverage. The guidance says “deductions will cease for non-excepted employees” — that is, those who are furloughed. OPM said it will provide information on how furloughed employees can continue long-term care, dental and vision coverage by Friday. I’ve asked OPM for confirmation on this and will update the blog when they get back to me.
- Any paid leave — annual, sick or otherwise — will be canceled. Meaning you still won’t come in to work, but you won’t be paid for those days.
- As expected, it will be up to Congress to decide whether furloughed employees will be paid for the shutdown time. It happened last time, but given the prominence of deficit hawks in Congress these days — and the general hostility towards federal employees in some quarters — it may not happen this time.
- If an excepted employee refuses to report for work, he will be considered absent without leave and subject to any AWOL penalties.
- Federal employees’ pensions — including calculation of the high-3 — won’t be affected unless the shutdown lasts for more than six months.
More information can be found in this Q&A we posted in February.