Federal Times Blogs

Washington, D.C-area feds getting a snow day

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Federal offices in the Washington, D.C. area will be closed Thursday, the Office of Personnel Management has announced. The early call came Wednesday evening as snow is already accumulating.

As usual, emergency and telework-ready employees must follow their agencies’ policies. But for those who have the chance to sleep a little later tomorrow morning, enjoy it. And stay safe.

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So what’s up with agency attrition rates?

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Every year, tens of thousands of federal employees retire or otherwise leave their jobs. But some agencies have much higher turnover rates than others. That data nugget is buried in a recent Government Accountability Office report examining government workforce trends. From fiscal 2004 through 2012, the average annual government retirement rate was 3.5 percent, the average resignation rate, 2.4 percent, for a combined “separation rate” of 5.9 percent, according to the report.

But when GAO reviewers looked at 24 individual agencies, they found a pretty big spread around that average. During that 2004-12 period, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency had an average yearly separation rate of 4.3 percent, less than half the figure for the Office of Personnel Management. Here is a ranking of the agencies culled from the GAO numbers. While workforce age would clearly be one factor in explaining the variations, are there others that come to mind?

1. Environmental Protection Agency

Retirement: 2.5%

Resignation: 1.8%

Total: 4.3%

2. Justice Department

Retirement: 2.2%

Resignation: 2.3%

Total: 4.5%

3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Retirement: 3.1%

Resignation: 1.7%

Total: 4.8%

4. Transportation Department

Retirement: 4.2%

Resignation: 0.9%

Total: 5.1%

5.  Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Retirement: 3.2%

Resignation: 2.2%

Total: 5.4%

6. Department of Health and Human Services

Retirement: 2.5%

Resignation: 3.0%

Total: 5.5%

7. Social Security Administration

Retirement: 4.2%

Resignation: 1.5%

Total: 5.7%

8. Department of Veterans Affairs

Retirement: 3%

Resignation: 3.1%

Total: 6.1%

9. Housing and Urban Development Department

Retirement: 4.2%

Resignation: 2.0%

Total: 6.2%

10. Department of Homeland Security

Retirement: 1.6%

Resignation: 5.0%

Total: 6.6%

11. General Services Administration

Retirement: 3.7%

Resignation: 2.9%

Total: 6.6%

12. Agriculture Department

Retirement: 3.9%

Resignation: 2.8%

Total: 6.7%

13. Interior Department

Retirement: 3.6%

Resignation: 3.1%

Total: 6.7%

14. Energy Department

Retirement: 4.3%

Resignation: 2.6%.

Total: 6.9%

15. State Department

Retirement: 2.7%

Resignation: 4.2%

Total: 6.9%

16,  Labor Department

Retirement: 3.6%

Resignation: 3.4%

Total: 7.0%

18. U.S. Agency for International Development

Retirement: 4.1%

Resignation: 2.9%

Total: 7.0%

19. Defense Department

Retirement: 3.5%

Resignation: 3.6%

Total: 7.1%

20. National Science Foundation

Retirement: 3.2%

Resignation: 3.9%

Total: 7.1%

21. Treasury Department

Retirement: 3.6%

Resignation: 4.0%

Total: 7.6%

22.  Education Department

Retirement: 4.3%

Resignation: 3.7%

Total: 8.0%

23. Small Business Administration

Retirement: 5.4%

Resignation: 2.9%

Total: 8.3%

24. Office of Personnel Management

Retirement: 3.7%

Resignation: 7.2%

Total: 10.9%


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Washington, D.C.-area federal offices are open Wednesday

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The icy rain pelting the D.C. region notwithstanding, federal agencies are open today, the Office of Personnel Management says,  but employees have the option of unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework. Click here for the advisory posted on OPM’s website. Stay safe!

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How many people at your agency are retirement-eligible?

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For all the talk of a looming “retirement tsumani” throughout  the federal workforce, the picture is actually a lot more nuanced. Some agencies–or agency components–have a ratio of retirement-eligibles well above the government-wide average of about 14 percent; some are so far below that the threat looks more like a ripple than a tidal wave, according to data provided by the Office of Personnel Management.

So where does your agency stand? Check out this nifty chart.


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Thinking of phased retirement? We want to hear from you

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The Office of Personnel Management today published proposed regulations on a new phased retirement option, which will let federal employees ease into retirement on a part-time basis, while still getting half a pension.

You can read all about OPM’s plan here. And we’d like to hear from you on this potentially monumental change. Are you interested in phasing into retirement? If so, why? (Or if not, why not?) And if you are a manager, do you think allowing your employees to take phased retirement will help with your agency’s succession planning and knowledge retention efforts?

E-mail me at slosey@federaltimes.com if you’d like to talk. If you’d prefer to talk anonymously, that’s fine.

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John Berry: ‘No comment’ on Interior secretary post

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

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.

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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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OPM declares unscheduled leave, telework for DC area; offices open tomorrow

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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.


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OPM: FEHBP must cover lesbian fed’s wife, but no other same-sex spouses

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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.

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OPM pension processing hamstrung by outdated IT

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

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.]

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