Federal employees face crucial questions in Obama’s second term

January 21, 2013

President Obama begins his second term with a solid series of accomplishments related to the federal workforce, but with more crucial questions facing federal employees than at any time in the past four years.

He didn’t mentioned federal workers specifically in his inaugural address Monday, but he closed with words that could have a special meaning for them: “With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Obama’s civilian staff of more than 2 million certainly faces “an uncertain future” in the very near future as discussions during the next two months on raising the nation’s borrowing limit, deficit reduction and the budget could have a direct effect on their pocketbooks and workplaces. Unpaid furloughs are a real possibility, and the potential for layoffs has workers worried.

After imposing a freeze on basic federal pay rates for more than two years, Obama has ordered a tiny raise, 0.5 percent, to begin at the end of March. Many Republicans, however, support legislation extending the freeze through the end of the year. Obama and Republicans have proposed making employees contribute more to their retirement funding, but so far that has been imposed only on those hired after 2012.

Despite the uncertainty, federal employees continue to work with the “passion and dedication” he urged. The Obama administration has taken action to support workers, with varying degrees of success.


Transcript and commentary on President Obama’s second inaugural address.

One of the most notable items on that list is federal hiring reform. Widely viewed as a broken mess when Obama took office, he told the Office of Personnel Management to simplify and quicken the way Uncle Sam hires people.

In May 2010, he released a plan to slash hiring times and move to a résumé-centered system, rather than one based on the dreaded KSAs, which were essays on the applicants’ knowledge, skills and abilities.

“The president is committing the power of his office to the importance of this issue, which is trying to streamline our hiring process,” OPM Director John Berry said at the time.

The administration also has focused on hiring a greater number of veterans, facilitating the employment of interns and recent graduates, increasing workplace diversity (especially for Latinos and the disabled) and reducing the backlog of retirement applications.

Labor relations certainly are better now than during the eight years of the administration of George W. Bush. Taking a cue from the Clinton administration, Obama revived labor-management forums to “allow managers and employees to collaborate in continuing to deliver the highest quality services to the American people,” in the words of an executive order he issued in December 2009.

The forums have not been a success in all agencies, but Matthew S. Biggs, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers, said it’s a “good sign” that Berry has expressed a willingness “to inventory all agencies in the federal government, with a goal of bringing those that are not in compliance with the Executive Order toward real working partnerships.”

Obama has moved to reduce workplace discrimination against gay and lesbian federal employees by taking administrative action to extend a number of federal benefits to their same-sex partners. Current law prohibits Uncle Sam from recognizing same-sex marriages, so the two big benefits, health insurance and retiree survivor benefits, remain out of reach.

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” Obama said after taking the oath of office.

He talked about diversity, but leaders of the Coalition for Change, an organization that fights discrimination in the federal government, said he was not specific enough about racial bias.

“If President Obama fails in his second term to hold officials accountable for violating the civil rights of public servants or the public they serve,” said coalition founder Tanya Ward Jordan, “we can expect a progression of a toxic federal culture that will increase taxpayer costs, that will impair the health of civil servants, and that will jeopardize the safe and efficient distribution of government services to the public.”

The “almost unprecedented challenges” facing the workforce — including an aging staff and competition for talent — present “a very troubling picture,” said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, which represents government contractors. But that also presents an opportunity, he added, “to lead meaningful initiatives that include very targeted human capital development strategies,” such as training and development programs.

Those challenges will include “budgetary pressures and legislative gridlock [that] are likely to lead to much greater focus on government management issues,” predicted Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, which has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.

“Improving the government’s effectiveness should be a second-term priority for President Obama,” Stier said.

What policies the administration actually pushes during its second term depend not only on the president but also “to a large extent, on us: the unions, the broad progressive movement and working people in general,” said Carl Goldman, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 26, which represents feds at nine agencies, with most in the Library of Congress.

“We won the election,” Goldman said. “Whether we win the next four years depends on what all of us are willing to do.”

Eric Yoder contributed to this report. For previous Joe Davidson columns, go to wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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