The Federal Diary
The Federal Diary
Joe Davidson

Federal Diary: Proposed changes to employee-giving campaign challenged

Mark Lambert seemed like a lonely soul Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

There were people with him at the witness table in the Rayburn House Office Building, and a few members of Congress were seated on the large dais in the front of the room. They were all there to consider proposed changes in the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), the charitable-giving program for federal employees.

Joe Davidson

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.

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Everyone supported the campaign but also understood the need to make improvements in the 52-year-old program. Yet Lambert, an associate director of the Office of Personnel Management, heard little support from the other witnesses — or from the Republican and Democratic members of the House subcommittee on the federal workforce — for some of the key changes the Obama administration advocates.

In fact, nearly everyone who spoke at the hearing thought some of the changes could do great harm to the charities that the OPM seeks to support.

The agency manages the CFC, which Lambert said is “the world’s largest annual workplace charity campaign.” Since 1961, it has raised more than $7 billion for charities. Contributions exceeded $258 million in 2012. That’s a lot of money, but represents a drop of $14 million from the year before.

All of the charity representatives on the panel with Lambert thought some of OPM’s proposals would casuse contributions to fall even more.

The proposed changes would “put handcuffs on service delivery,” complained Ju’Coby Pittman, president and chief executive of the Clara White Mission, which works with veterans, the homeless and the poor in Jacksonville, Fla.

Pittman and others are particularly upset about changes that would sharply reduce the person-to-person nature of the campaign — workers asking colleagues to contribute to a good cause.

“No one will give unless you ask them to,” Pittman said.

The witnesses, except Lambert, also object to OPM’s plan to accept electronic donations only. Contributions by cash, check and money order would be eliminated.

These are two of 13 CFC changes the administration seeks.

“Taken together as a whole,” Lambert said, “these changes are needed to not only streamline operations but to increase program effectiveness while ensuring its continued growth and success.”

Proposed changes also would allow new employees to make payroll-deduction contributions within 30 days of being hired, rather than having to wait for a solicitation period; allow employees to immediately contribute to disaster-relief efforts; and streamline the application process.

But it seems that no one but OPM wants to take the changes “as a whole” when parts seem so defective.

“With CFC participation at an all-time low, change is in order and opportunities do exist to make the CFC more efficient and effective,” said Kalman Stein, president and chief executive of EarthShare, which primarily represents environmental groups. “While there are aspects of OPM’s proposed changes that are promising, we are deeply concerned that any positive impacts will be overshadowed by recommendations that will result in fewer donations that will in turn impact services to local communities, including federal workers, and their families, as charities have to cut back on service delivery.”

Stein’s testimony was telling and not just because EarthShare represents 80 national organizations and more than ­
600 local charities and manages the National Capital Area CFC, the nation’s largest. He said he was speaking for seven national federations representing 500 national charities and thousands of local ones.

Stein’s statement was also important because he was on the CFC-50 Commission, which OPM formed in 2011, the campaign’s 50th-anniversary year. It issued recommendations in 2012 to increase “the CFC’s accessibility, accountability, transparency and affordability.”

But OPM went beyond the commission’s recommendations and proposed changes that have slim support outside the agency.

OPM’s plan to move from local to regional control is a prime example.

Currently, “federal employee volunteers are engaged in all aspects of the campaign,” Stein said in his statement to the subcommittee. “This gives federal employees a strong sense of ownership and a stake in the success of the campaign.”

Instead of local committees, OPM wants regional oversight.

“This would dramatically diminish the role of local federal employee volunteers to the detriment of the campaign,” Stein said. “Such a radical reorganization of the campaign was not considered or discussed by the CFC Commission.”

Similarly, although charitable organizations favor expanding donation options, “we know from experience that it is a critical mistake to eliminate traditional means of giving altogether,” Stein said, “and the CFC Commission did not recommend eliminating giving options.”

Debby Hampton, president and chief executive of the United Way of Central Oklahoma, had a few complaints about the commission, but that wasn’t her main issue.

“The most disconcerting aspect to the regulations proposed by OPM is how far they go beyond the CFC-50 recommendations,” she said. “For example, the CFC-50 Commission recommended consolidating some of the ‘back-office’ processing. Instead, the OPM proposed regulations that drastically reduce local involvement in the CFC — a proposal that could devastate the CFC.”

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

 
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