Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Little Continuity Without Leadership in Reserve (Post, Sept. 26)

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today! For all practical purposes, the government ends this fiscal year on Friday and will probably greet Fiscal Year 2008 on a "continuing resolution" that keeps agencies open until a budget agreement is reached. It could take time; this year's funding, for example, was enacted only after the government endured four CRs. Best of luck in the new year! With that, we'll go to the questions and comments.

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Furlough for Government Employees: Hello. I work at a government agency in Washington and there has been plenty of conversations about the furlough that is supposed to happen -- do you have any news or information on this?

Stephen Barr: I don't expect to see any widespread furlough of employees, and it is difficult to imagine that any agency could be so strapped for cash right now that it would result to a furlough.

The CR before Congress will probably run through Nov. 16, so you should have that breathing room. The real issue is whether any agencies have to take cuts for '08 that are below their '07 funding level. That too, seems unlikely, but possible, I guess.

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Virginia: I went to the Air Force Association convention yesterday. Many military and civilian personnel don't see happy. What can we do to improve the morale of the civil servants and the military?

Stephen Barr: This is a difficult time for many Defense employees. The Iraq war is such a big issue, from so many perspectives, that Defense leaders do not have time to pay attention to other issues. The war also has led to long hours in the office for subordinates, and that leads to burn out over time and family discontent.

Some people also may be finding out that their program priorities up for grabs, starting in January 2009, when a new White House team moves in. Between now and then, these folks also have to respond to Congress, controlled by Democrats, who are holding more oversight hearings.

But I think Iraq is the primary reason for morale problems, and there may not be much that can be done, except to encourage people to keep working hard and laud them for their hard work. It took the military a long time to dig out from the criticism of the Vietnam war, and we may be seeing a replay of that today.

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Arlington, Va.: So, you write that IRS managers are not happy with their performance-based pay system, that SEC may have discriminated against some employees with its pay system, and that NSPS employees are not getting the full 2008 cost-of-living adjustment but may or may not get a bigger raise than the GS depending on their performance ratings. Is this worth all this trouble?

Stephen Barr: I suspect the answer depends on where you work and how you feel about your boss. A good resource for employees in new pay systems is a study written by Prof. James R. Thompson of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The title is "Designing and Implementing Performance-Oriented Payband Systems" and provides a good overview of what's going on in the government today. You can find it right here, sponsored by the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

According to Thompson, many experts believe that pay bands help agencies make organizational changes, support high-performance workplaces, give managers more discretion and help agencies control their payroll costs. Check it out!

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Arlington, Va.: The last furlough happened before I started my fed career; what happens in one? I can see a situation where I'd still have to come in because of legal deadlines on outstanding work, but would we eventually get paid? Are paychecks seriously disrupted? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: They are not pretty. You essentially get sent home, without pay. If you are deemed emergency essential by your agency, you can work, but without pay. At some point, Congress and the White House reach an accord, and Congress writes into the law that employees should receive retroactive pay, back to the time of the agency shutdown.

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Virginia: What would be the most effective way to get NSPS overturned? Should one write letters to their congressmen? I truly believe it is eroding our government workforce and is causing a renewed distrust in management. I am getting ready to transfer to another location where I will rejoin the GS pay system and I intend to join the union (a first in my 25-plus years of government service). The designers of NSPS produced an extremely complicated system with many flaws. Are managers better engaged with subordinates? No. Are they able to pick and choose who gets reassignment pay adjustments? Yes. Do we need a whole new career field of compensation experts because the rules are too confusing? Yes. The list could go on ... follow the money and you will see NSPS will bankrupt us if allowed to stay in place.

Stephen Barr: Congress wrote the law that permitted the Department of Defense to set up the NSPS, so I think your best bet is to call and write your members of Congress. To be effective, you need to give them a real-life example of how it has worked to the disadvantage of your organization.

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Arlington, Va.: How does one go about organizing like GAO has done? What union do you call, or do they come see you?

Stephen Barr: In the GAO case, some analysts went over to see their friends at the Congressional Research Service about how to unionize, and then met with their bargaining representatives. Sometimes a union will test the waters at an agency if it thinks employees are interested in joining together for collective bargaining. Some unions specialize in representing certain occupations or types of workers, so that might be a factor, too.

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Alexandria, Va.: What can one take from the GAO's decision to unionize? Is it really a Top Place To Work? It seems that if it were, the employees wouldn't be disgruntled enough to unionize. What does this mean for the proponents of pay-for-performance in other areas?

Stephen Barr: I can only speculate. Some GAO analysts did not believe management really listened to their concerns, and they wanted a stronger voice in workplace decisions. Other analysts were angered that they did not receive a pay raise or only received a partial pay raise under the new pay system, as compared to the old. And some other analysts joined because they truly want to only concentrate on their work and the GAO mission, and believe that GAO should provide them with a stable, predictable salary, because GAO is not about making a profit, a big deal in the private sector.

Hard to know what it means, overall, except that unions generally thrive on agency proposals that impact pay. After the FAA adopted a new pay system, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees formed four bargaining units, including one that represents agency lawyers.

And, yes, I think GAO is a best place to work. Smart colleagues, an interesting client (Congress) and big issues to tackle. No boredom there.

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Washington: I was very interested in your article about attracting "Generation Y-ers" to the Federal Government. Good luck! The government is just too large and bureaucratic for individual employees to have any impact. I joined the FCC shortly after receiving my law degree in 1998. I and at least eight colleagues spent four years on a massive rulemaking that still is working its way through the process, with very few tangible results. In my case I left after four years, more than doubled my salary, and it's gone up since then. This undoubtedly will get me brickbats, but my experience was that most of the top lawyers did the same. More possible brickbats, but the exception was working mothers, who appreciate the generally light workload (as opposed to the private sector), generous leave and other benefits to the point that money is less important.

It's possible to occasionally make an impact; I have a friend who worked for a smaller, consumer-oriented agency who takes pride in having helped enact a rule on infant car seats that he feels has saved lives. Friends at the FCC who worked with the FTC to enact the largely successful "Do Not Call" registry have the same sense of satisfaction. But these exceptions are few and far between.

I know the question of pay equity is a hot one, but it has reached the point that first-year associates, and not just those on Ivy League law reviews, are making close to what top government lawyers make at the end of their career. On the other hand, the FCC has dozens of GS 7-11 secretaries (lawyers start at GS-11) where no college is required, who make $50,000, $60,000 or even $70,000 a year. Some do a good job, while others either have poor skills or too much time, which they spending on the phone or surfing the Internet. As you know, it's virtually impossible to fire a government employee short of theft or other substantial malfeasance. This leads to serious morale problems all across the board. The system clearly is broken, and I have no idea how to fix it. But you have done a good thing by at least starting the dialogue. As I said above, good luck!

Stephen Barr: Thanks for your comments. The experts tell me that the Gen Y crowd is wary of getting drawn into places where they can't make a difference. I'm sure agencies will fill their job openings in the future. But will any White House have the courage to ask whether the best and brightest are applying and staying?

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Washington: Your column on Gen Y was not clear on what it will take to get them to pursue a government career. Your comment?

washingtonpost.com: Bringing Generation Y Into the Fold (Post, Sept. 24)

Stephen Barr: It's all about marketing. Gen Y will respond to agencies that can demonstrate whey they are special or unique. They also want to work at places that don't demand 9-to-5 hours and have Mickey Mouse rules. So agencies that are flexible will do the best, according to the experts and papers I've read.

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Baltimore: When will there be another Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance open season? I'd like to add my spouse now that he is unemployed (thus, no longer has affordable life insurance through his employer). However, I missed the time window for a Qualifying Life Event (we've been married four years now).

Stephen Barr: I don't think so. But the Office of Personnel Management will soon issue a guide to the new benefits season that starts in November, and you should check that out. I'd also talk to your personnel shop to see what can be done sooner rather than later. Best of luck!

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St. Louis: I am a Fed under FERS approaching retirement in a few years. During a mid-career retirement seminar some years back, the presenter suggested that at some point, the rules regarding sick leave would be changed to resemble the CSRS rules -- that a couple of years of near-end-of-career sick leave abuse would drive the change. Have you heard any rumblings to this effect? I hope so, otherwise I'll need to start scheduling that use-it-or-lose-it sick leave!

Stephen Barr: I've not heard of any movement on this, so you may want to check the weather forecast and judiciously plan to take a sick day or two.

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Alexandria, Va.: To see about organizing, contact the National Treasury Employees Union or the American Federation of Government Employees's headquarters. Our agency is represented by NTEU, which has an excellent national team and does great work helping employees in all kinds of situations. Go to this Web site; the phone number is at the bottom of the page.

Stephen Barr: Information and unions rights and responsibilities are posted on the Labor Department's Web site. There also is information posted by the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

There are many more unions that NTEU and AFGE, although they are among the best known to many federal employees.

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Washington: For Arlington: I would try this Web site It lists the current government employee unions and their functions. I am a current member of NTEU and witnessed first hand how they came to our agency and recruited people. It was very organized and the process was a pleasant one.

Stephen Barr: Thanks much!

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Kansas City, Mo.: Thank you for the comments on Gen Y ... As a younger fed, I was beginning to think that my values regarding work flexibility and arbitrary rules just made me crazy ... nice to know that others in my generation feel the same. Assuming the president signs the recent student loan bill submitted by Congress, how do you think the new loan forgiveness programs will benefit younger feds like myself?

Stephen Barr: Difficult to know. Agencies will need to seek funding from Congress to finance loan reimbursement programs, and some have shown little interest. But a few are leading the way, and I see it as a great perk that can make agencies more competitive in recruiting and retaining employees.

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Reston, Va.: Your Sept. 14 column on health insurance costs headlines a 2.1 percent average cost increase. Is that just a paraphrase of OPM's news release? With BlueCross BlueShield (it's by far the largest plan, isn't it?) going up "as much as 8.5 percent"; the other plans must have dropped precipitously to offset the much higher BlueCross BlueShield increase. Have you done any calculations to confirm the 2.1 percent average? Intuitively, it seems way too low.

Stephen Barr: As the column noted, OPM tapped into the financial reserves of the fee-for-service plans to lower the premium increase, probably by a full 3 percentage points. So you got a real break, compared to private-sector employees, who will likely face premium increases in the 6 percent to 7 percent range next year.

Yes, Blue Cross standard option went up, and that is significant, since about 60 percent of the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program is covered by big blue. But Government Employees Health Association rates stayed the same or went down, and other rate hikes vary dramatically. So it makes sense to shop around in FEHBP, I think.

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Manassas, Va.: Hello Steven. Are you aware of any formal hiring freeze by any federal agencies? I cannot remember a time where I have had less response from job applications, seen jobs advertised to "current agency employees only" or seen fewer advertised openings. What is really going on? It has been like this for 18-24 months.

Stephen Barr: Can only guess, but I'm assuming lots of agencies are going into a soft freeze, waiting to see how the CR and budget battles play out. It's possible some started earlier; it's also possible that agencies are leaving jobs vacant so that they can use payroll savings to cover other overhead expenses.

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La Jolla, Calif.: Thanks for taking my question, Mr. Barr. With the recent announcement that the Department of Defense, via the NSPS, will only allow employees to gain 50 percent of the congressionally-approved cost of living increase this year, and next year will zero it out, how much more proof will it take to show the true intent of NSPS? And since when is a COLA (a cost-of-living adjustment) tied to perceived performance? Pay raises are step increases and promotions. COLAs should not be taken away.

Stephen Barr: Unfortunately, we all use "COLA" way too much. From DoD's view, you get a pay raise. That used to be what Congress approved, the general increase, plus a locality pay supplement.

Under NSPS, these lines are getting blurred. I assume your pay band does not include step increases, and promotions may be more competitive, if you have to change pay bands.

You still get locality adjustments under NSPS, but the rest of your pay is now linked to job performance ratings.

Think of it this way -- only federal retirees get COLAs.

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Rockville, Md.: "They are not pretty. You essentially get sent home, without pay. If you are deemed emergency essential by your agency you can work, but without pay. At some point Congress and the White House reach an accord, and Congress writes into the law that employees should receive retroactive pay, back to the time of the agency shutdown."

Why isn't it pretty? You get sent home and then get paid, or you stay and work and then the get paid. Worst case, you are where you are right now. Best case, free time off.

Stephen Barr: Rockville, you get the last word, for better or worse.

Once again, we've run out of time. Thanks for joining in this discussion today. I had a little technical glitch, and appreciate your patience on that. See you back here at noon next Wednesday--in the new fiscal year!

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