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Readers react to recent Federal Diary columns

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 5:37 PM

The Federal Diary gets lots of mail, some of it fit to print. We like to give readers a chance to speak out by occasionally printing some of those letters.

Proposed pay freeze

Columns about the two-year pay freeze facing federal employees next year and the possibility of additional cuts, including to federal retirement benefits, generated lots of reaction.

I'm not happy about my federal pay freeze paying for tax reductions for the rich. Nor am I happy about the continued health [insurance] increases sanctioned by the OPM [Office of Personnel Management]. Why aren't the insurance companies told to skip increases?

- Mary Brown, Landover

As a retired federal worker, I appreciate my retirement benefits. I earned them and forwent higher-paying attorney jobs in the private sector. Part of my reward was the ability to enjoy an excellent defined-benefit retirement through the Civil Service Retirement System. I don't feel bad accepting my monthly retirement. Want to reduce the federal workforce? Pass laws that are less complex and have more detail so it is less difficult to administer them.

- Neil Richman, retired from Department of Veteran Affairs

I am in favor of freezing the pay of federal workers, which I am not, and also in favor of freezing federal retirement pensions, which I have, and freezing Social Security payments, which I receive.

I also am in favor of putting a three-year freeze on hiring in the federal workforce except for critical billets, such as air traffic controllers.

I also am in favor of an across-the-board universal cut of 5 percent in funding contractor support. I am a contractor.

Most of all, I am in support of a 15 percent cut in funding for federal agencies (employee salaries and new acquisitions) effective in fiscal 2013.

If I were in position as "The Decider," I'd ask these simple questions: "Do our customers need this?" "Is it critical?" and "Will lives be put at risk if we don't do this?" If the answer to these questions is no, I'd cancel the program then and there. The federal government is there to provide essential services, not be our nanny to address all our desires.

I've been a fed for one career and a contractor for another career and have never seen any agency ask those types of questions, and I have never seen an agency consciously trying to trim its own budget. The agencies operate as if they own the money in their checkbook and that as long as there is money in it, it is theirs to spend.

That's too bad of course. It isn't their money to spend, is it?

- Al Mears, McLean

Increasing diversity

A reader who has studied federal workplace diversity had this reaction to a column about President Obama's plans to increase diversity:

Your pessimism, especially regarding federal senior-level diversity, was rightly placed. In 1981, I completed my doctoral dissertation on "Executive Stress and Federal Supergrade Executives: A Comparative Analysis of Black and White Executives." Based on OPM data in 1977, there were 6,462 career federal executives - of whom only 223, or 3.4 percent, were black. It has taken 32 years for the proportion of black executives to reach the still-anemic level of 7 percent in 2009. While I feel blessed as a retired SES-6 black executive, I despair that my circumstance has been an exception.

- Bob Brown, Rockville

Hiring and attrition

A column about a report that says nearly a quarter of federal government hires leave their jobs within two years drew this response:

I read your article on the high attrition rate in the federal workforce and noticed it was missing a major perspective as to why this is. The reason so many new employees leave after such a short time is because of the archaic and nearly-impossible-to-navigate promotion system that we must contend with once we are onboard.

Many who come in mid-career are told by recruiters that to get your foot in the door you must be willing to take a huge pay cut and take a lower-level position because all the more senior-level positions almost always go to internal candidates. Once you do, you discover that all your experience and skills you spent the last 10 to 20 years building are useless for trying to move up within the system.

The promotion system and application system require every candidate to have at least one year in grade to be eligible for the next higher grade, and you can move up only one step at a time, taking years to get back up through the system to a level you may have been at in the private sector. There is absolutely no regard for experience or skills or even education in the selection process until you get past the time-in-grade requirement.

Unfortunately, this information is not communicated during the recruiting process, and once you discover it on your own after onboarding, it does not take long for the frustration to set in. The prospect of competing year after year, job after job for each step increase just to get back to where you once were is daunting. It's no wonder so many choose to jump ship back into the private sector, where skill and experience have value, at the first opportunity.

For all the hoopla and rhetoric about hiring the best, the hiring process is only functional for college fresh-outs who should be beginning at the bottom and working their way up. For a mid-career person, it's virtual career suicide.

- Ken Helsley, Austin

The Federal Diary will be closed until January. Have a happy holiday season.

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