Federal Diary celebrates 80 years covering federal employee issues

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 28, 2012

Break out the birthday cake!

The Federal Diary is 80 years old today.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

We like to think it’s a spry, energetic 80, with no signs of slowing down.

When the Diary began covering issues involving federal employees — a core segment of The Washington Post audience — president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and congressional leaders were discussing legislation to legalize beer.

“The Federal Diary is there to tell federal employees about their own interests,” said Donald E. Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co. “It is so intensely read.”


The Federal Diary, a “brand new column on the activites and interests of government workers,” was announced on the front page of the Washington Post on November 29, 1932. The paper cost three cents that day. (The Washington Post)

The Diary is not a franchise that changes hands frequently. Since 1940, there have been only four Diary columnists, five if you include Willard Clopton Jr., who partnered with Mike Causey for less than a month.

It all started Nov. 29, 1932, with this lead from George D. Riley:

“Good morning, Government department workers! And good morning six days every week from now on. Here we’ll meet daily and read the news off the beaten path pertaining to Federal employees. And here we’ll learn what our neighbors in the other Government departmental buildings are doing.”

The Diary has changed in some ways since then. We’re in print four days each week but online more than that. And we don’t write as many personal items as Riley did in that first column, like this one:

“We are wondering whether Louise Smallwood, Farmers Seed Loan, is just naturally fickle. . . . But after all who can blame her for going home in a shiny new Packard in preference to the decrepit hybrid in which she arrived at Griffith Stadium to witness the G.W. -Oklahoma football game?”

Seven years later, Alfred Friendly reported about a General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) crackdown on employees who “powder noses or straighten neckties preparatory to springing from their chairs on the stroke of the 4:30 bell.”

In a memo to division chiefs, GAO Comptroller General Fred H. Brown, said “some of our employes stop work before official quitting time apparently for the purpose of making themselves ready to leave the building exactly when the bell rings.”

Brown ran a strict ship.

“Unlike almost any other Federal clerical agency,” Friendly wrote, “at the G.A.O. employes may not receive personal phone calls at their desks. Incoming calls are questioned by the phone operators to determine if they are official.”

Today, Brown would be one of those managers blocking telework.

The Diary soon moved to more bread-and-butter issues.

On Nov. 27, 1941, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jerry Kluttz reported that “Navy and Coast Guard employees are now on a 44-hour work week on the order of Secretary Frank Knox.”

But here’s where his reporting demonstrates the Diary’s mission of exposing conditions affecting the federal workforce.

“While messengers and typists put in the additional four hours without increased salary, the architects and engineers and other professional and sub-professional employes are paid time and a half for all directed overtime.

“This provision, of course, is downright unfair to the employees who are compelled to work longer hours without additional pay.”

Four years later, Kluttz wrote about Senate legislation “that would raise salaries of white-collar Federal employes by 20 percent.” Don’t expect a repeat of that anytime soon.

In 1950, Kluttz, who did the column for nearly 28 years, wrote about a lame-duck congressional session during which federal compensation was considered. Sound familiar? Then, union officials asked Democrats and Republicans to sponsor legislation for federal pay raises. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen this lame duck, during a year when House Republicans voted to extend the current freeze on basic pay rates to a total of five years.

About a month before Christmas in 1956, Kluttz reported that the Army “issued an official memo that frowns on this exchange of Christmas cards by its civilian and military personnel.” This Scrooge-like directive said cards are “unnecessary” and suggested that “Christmas greetings . . . be exchanged by word of mouth.”

Pay was again an issue in 1966, when the Civil Service Commission considered raising salaries for hard-to-fill positions. “Agencies contend,” Kluttz wrote, “that their rates are far behind salaries for similar jobs in industry.”

Here’s an interesting note at the end of a Kluttz column from 1968: “Several agencies indirectly police breaks by forbidding the use of chairs and tables. The premise: people don’t tarry when they drink coffee or a soft drink standing up.”

Writing about pay and benefits always generates lots of reader reaction, as Causey learned when his May 22, 1983, column drew more than 61,000 pieces of mail.

“It was a period like now, Congress was looking to cut benefits,” he recalled by e-mail. Among other things, Causey asked readers their opinion of a proposal to raise the age for full retirement benefits.

“The mail (real snail mail) started the next day. In the end we had to hire people from a temp agency to help read and count the mail. At first the editors were delighted with the response. But after cart after cart of mail started piling up I think some of them saw it as an eye-sore/fire hazard. I guess you can be too successful.”

By the way, unlike now, “none of the proposed benefit cuts actually became law,” Causey added.

In 2006, Stephen Barr, my immediate predecessor, reported on a warning from Comptroller General David M. Walker, the head of the GAO, about a number of government issues. The list could have been issued yesterday: It included “improving federal computer security to deter identity theft,” “reorganizing the U.S. Postal Service” and “modernizing federal employee performance management and compensation systems.”

Graham credits the Diary’s longevity to the service it provides federal employees.

“The Diary celebrates the best work of those people, but it’s been unafraid to call attention to problems and issues.

“It’s a crucially important part of The Washington Post.”

I’m proud to write it.

Let us know what you think of the Federal Diary.

Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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