Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 16, 2008; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr writes the Federal Diary column, 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 Wednesday, Dec. 12 at noon ET discuss the joys and pains of working for the federal government.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

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Stephen Barr: Thanks for joining today's discussion! The Bush administration is beginning its last year in office, and I look forward to your feedback on transition planning in your offices. It also will be interesting to see what agenda items are important to the Congress and the administration in a few weeks, when we get to hear the State of the Union and see the new budget. Again, thanks for your comments and questions.

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Washington: Stephen, in a recent column you mentioned that the statutory cap for GS-15/10s has kicked in for 2008 as a result of the 4.49 percent D.C. locality pay increase? Given how many people are affected by this (and not just here -- in San Francisco the cap is hitting all 15/7s and above), is there are any serious effort under way to fix the problem?

Stephen Barr: Not in the near-term. Because of the statutory links between the GS and the Executive Schedule, etc., I'm guessing it will take some time to garner attention on Capitol Hill and reach a consensus on what to do.

If it is any comfort, you are not the first to raise this issue. My e-mail box got jammed with GS-15s who are not pleased by the notion that their pay could be frozen for a year or two.

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Washington: I am one of "those" GS-15s, one whose managers don't know quite how to handle them. The one sitting in a corner, given very little to do, bored witless while the managers complain that they don't have enough staff. I also am at the end of my career, planning to retire in a year. My question is, do I tough it out, pretending that I have something to do, or start over knowing that I'm retiring soon?

Stephen Barr: It's a crying shame that our office cultures permit this to happen, when everyone knows there is a lot of stuff to do, short- and long-term.

I'm all for getting a kick out of life and work, so I say go for it. Tell the bosses you want something to tout as an accomplishment for 2008 and put forth an idea that will put some fun and zest back into your game.

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Department of Defense: Mr. Barr -- can you explain NSPS to me in a nutshell? (My boss cannot.) If a GS scale federal employee moves up one step and receives the 3.5 percent cost of living increase from Congress, what does the NSPS employee receive? Do we receive the 3.5 percent cost of living adjustment?

Stephen Barr: The Pentagon is at a sort of transitional moment here on the NSPS. But here goes:

If you have been in NSPS for a full performance-rating cycle and got good marks, you should get 60 percent of the base GS raise plus locality pay. The 40 percent that you are missing is being dumped into a pay pool, and you will get some, all or more of it back, depending on your job performance rating and how the "shares" are distributed.

The math should look like this: a 1.5 percent base pay raise, a 1 percent raise tied to job performance, and a 1 percent locality pay increase. That supposedly equals the average 3.5 percent GS raise (2.5 percent base pay plus locality adjustments).

This 60-40 split was put in place by Congress, which was wary of a Pentagon plan to phase out base pay raises and put 100 percent of new payroll dollars into performance pay pools. This is all new, so I would think it will take at least a year to get it fully explained to all Department of Defense employees.

Please let me know how you think it is working!

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Maryland: Just think it's kind of interesting: The Bush administration entered it's first presidential year in 2001 with a recession, and now that it is in the last year we are back to a recession again. Not a Bush fan.

Stephen Barr: Regardless of your politics, a recession could cause some trouble for agency accounts. Congress is trying to do the pay-as-you-go approach to spending and taxes, and approving a big stimulus package this year might require cuts in the government. Keep an eye on that spot.

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Washington: We have a rash of drug tests going on for our people who have clearances; is this happening all over? Seems kind of weird.

Stephen Barr: I don't know. Many agencies are putting people through the security clearance drill these days because they have been told to adopt a uniform federal ID card that will contain fingerprints, etc., and electronically verify that you are who you say you are when you enter buildings and log on to certain systems. This, and a post-9/11 tightening, also has led agencies to run background checks on people who don't need security clearances, on the assumption that they hold the public trust and need to be investigated on a regular basis. Drug tests, credit checks, etc. can be a part of this.

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Washington: What are the guidelines for federal employees seeking employment outside the federal government?

Stephen Barr: Check out the information at the Office of Government Ethics Web site and look at the "revolving door" and post-employment advice.

The basic rule is that you must avoid any conflict of interest. While performing your federal job, stay away from any matter involving a potential new employer. Avoid any financial entanglement. Your agency ethics officer can help you navigate this shoal. Best of luck!

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Washington: I'm a fed at an excepted service agency and am looking to move onward and upward, just like anybody else, into the GS-13 area. Thing is, I'm a bit concerned about being a new employee in an executive agency during an administration change, especially one where parties have a good chance of changing. My big fear is that while I have more than 10 years of time at excepted-service agencies, I don't think I'll accrue status for three years, leaving myself vulnerable to being axed first. Are my fears unfounded? Am I thinking this in the right way?

Stephen Barr: Transitions can be tough in some agencies, what with the arrival of new political appointees, etc. I'm no HR expert, but my sense is that you have a solid work history and safely will make it through any probationary period, if one applies to you. So I would not fear being axed.

You can bet, though, that Congress, if a Democrat takes the White House, will be asking the GAO to probe agency hiring patterns to see if any Republican appointees are "burrowing in" to career jobs. You shouldn't get swept up in that, but do the right thing and make sure your hiring papers are in proper order.

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Washington: For the GS-15s reaching the statutory cap: it's not that your pay is frozen; rather, it just isn't increasing as quickly as others in your locality area. The Executive Schedule is bumped up each year based on the "across the board" pay amount. In the case of this year, it's 2.5 percent. It's really no different than those who are in special pay rates who lose their specialness over time, other than having a higher salary to begin with...

Stephen Barr: That is true. The Executive Schedule went up 2.5 percent this year; while the net GS increase in D.C. is 4.49 percent. Still, if Congress opts to not take a pay raise, which has happened, some of these schedules are frozen for that year.

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Washington:"Mr. Barr -- can you explain NSPS to me in a nutshell?" My summary is that you'll lose out. I'm at an agency which moved off the grade/step system a while ago. Over the weekend I did a pay analysis on myself. Coming up on seven years ago, I got a new grade. I mapped the gross pay (in 2001) to a step on the OPM's D.C. grade/step scale for 2001. Fast-forward to 2008. My gross pay in 2008 maps to the same grade but one step higher on the 2008 scale. So, in moving from the grade/step, my agency has been able to give me a one-step increase when I would have gotten a three-step increase under the grade/step method.

Stephen Barr: Thank you. I've had some correspondence from folks who believe they are not keeping pace with the GS. I assume that because pay bands are larger salary ranges, often with no within-grade increases, that your pay progression is slower. Am I right here, folks?

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Fairfax, Va.: Please settle something for us. Is it true that a SES does not have the same job security of a civil GS-15? How is it different? Is it easier to get rid of a SES? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Yes, it is easier to get rid of an SESer, according to personnel experts. SESers can be held accountable for their organization's performance, as well as their individual job performance. Most do not get "fired"; they are called in by their bosses and offered a chance to resign or take a reassignment. Some hire a lawyer and negotiate a settlement if they feel they have been wronged. In some performance-based actions, they are moved to the GS-15 level.

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Arlington, Va.: If the same individuals are being called over and over for a drug test, this means the agency is targeting someone with the same Social Security Number or that individual but they have to do it randomly. This is the only way they can do this. I once worked for a Department of Defense Law Enforcement agency that now has its own TV show, and they cut funding for drug testing because they were law enforcement and security. Obviously the fact that law enforcement types are more likely to abuse drugs, including prescriptions and alcohol, never dawned on them.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the early afternoon chuckle.

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Washington: I am a newly hired federal employee out of graduate school. I was told that there is student loan repayment available for retention purposes. I am finding that there are different processes for different agencies. Is there any sort of uniform approach, or some way to navigate the bureaucratic mess that is government?

Stephen Barr: Check out this link to OPM.

You'll find links to OPM reports on the student loan repayment program, and the reports include tables listing agencies and what kinds of jobs are targeted for this perk.

But you are right -- each agency operates a customized program, so I'm not sure there is a centralized place to compare these repayment programs.

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FEEA: Steve, just wanted to alert all your federal employee readers that the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund's 2008-2009 scholarship application is now available. As you know, FEEA offers merit-based college scholarships to civilian federal employees and their dependents each year, with more than $470,000 awarded last year. More info, including a downloadable application, is available on our Web site. Applications must be submitted by March 28, 2008. Thanks for helping us spread the word.

Stephen Barr: Thank you.

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Washington (again): "I assume that because pay bands are larger salary ranges, often with no within-grade increases, that your pay progression is slower. Am I right here, folks?" Pretty much correct. Through the years, our raises were either the same percentage increase for everybody who "met expectations," or one percentage increase for everybody who met expectations and a larger one for those who "exceeded expectations." No within-grade increase for extraordinary performance.

Stephen Barr: Thank you.

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Fort Mead, Md.: I am a fed working in the area of security clearances, and we have been informed that we will be issued a uniform federal ID card. There was a statement when notified of this that our security clearances will need to be reviewed. There is no drug testing going on here and no word of any so far. The poster's agency may be under scrutiny that there has been reports of drug use, or their director may be on the phobia scare from the professional athletes steroid use. Don't know for sure.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Maryland.

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Dumb Question: What is the value of the statutory cap? When was it last altered? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: The 1989 Ethics Reform Act most recently set up some of the rules for pay schedules, and Congress has arranged it so that lawmakers are paid the same as federal district court judges and that pay raises for Congress go up a smaller percentage each year than they do for federal employees. This is known as you know what -- a way to cover oneself for political protection. Without this complex scheme, lawmakers likely never would receive a pay raise, because every year someone could stand up and say federal officials are paid to much, etc.

It's worth noting that federal officials have received pay raises in 11 of 16 years (1991-2006). Congress did not take a pay raise in 2007, and when they skip a raise, it bounces around and impacts others in government.

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NSPS: NSPS over time only will benefit the higher-paid employee. The amount of shares an employee earns is linked to current base salary and performance. With all things equal, an employee making $40,000 with above-average reviews (say a four out of five) will receive a lower performance payout than someone earning $100,000 who might have received a three out of five rating. If I were a lower-paid employee, I would go to an agency under the GS system.

Stephen Barr: Interesting. I had not thought of it in those terms.

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Kingstowne, Va.: Do people who are being transitioned into a pay-for-performance system from the GS system believe the government would have initiated this transition if it was going to cost the government more money? The primary goal for the government is to spend less money, while diverting raises from the rank-and-file workers to a smaller subset of high-performing personnel. Why would anyone expect any new pay system to track favorably with the GS system?

Stephen Barr: Agencies already engage in bidding wars for certain skilled employees, and most agencies adopting pay-for-performance systems do not want to be perceived as less-attractive places to work, so they want to hang near the GS or improve on it.

My sense is that these new pay systems will "save money" in the long haul by giving employees lump-sum/bonus payments in lieu of raises, and of course they don't count toward high-3 retirement. But I may be wrong; Congress stepped in to ensure NSPS raises are indeed that and not bonuses, I'm told.

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Washington: Drug Testing: I currently work for a federal law enforcement agency that "now has its own TV show." I can tell you that we currently do conduct random drug testing. It is policy (Defense, I believe) that all persons with a TS/SCI clearance are subject to pre-employment drug testing as well as random drug tests during their employment.

Stephen Barr: Thanks. Good to know.

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Topped-out 15/10: Here's one advantage to having my Grade 15/10 salary capped -- it's making my retirement decision much easier. No reason to stick around past my expiration (oops, retirement) date given that my "top three" won't be increased.

Stephen Barr: And don't forget to check out your TSP account balance and other savings, just to make sure you're set for the long haul. Private-sector hiring may slack off if we get hit by a recession, as you know.

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Step increases: I am a fairly new federal employee. I recently was told that step increases are not definite after a year. The reasons cited were that I moved into a new position after about eight months (same pay grade) and that they were based on performance. Huh? I thought step increases were automatic? And it shouldn't be an issue, because my performance was rated as high as it could be. What is your take? Is this some kind of weirdness at my individual agency? I'm annoyed I may be penalized for essentially getting a promotion, even though the grade did not change.

Stephen Barr: Don't know the answer. Most within-grade increases are fairly automatic, linked to time in the position. There are quality-step increases, which are based on merit and job performance. This could be a timing issue, or could be a shift in policy by the agency. Let me know what kind of feedback you get!

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Baltimore: Was there a discussion on Jan. 9? If so, do you have a link? By the way, I find the set-up of the Federal Page much less user-friendly since it was changed in January 2007. Thanks!

Stephen Barr: Hi Baltimore! Thanks for being a faithful reader. No, I skipped the Jan. 9 discussion because of a medical appointment that put me on the sidelines for a couple of days. So no transcript out there.

I'll pass along your comments about the page; like government, newspapers are in a period of transition, what with more readers on the Web and a decline in print subscriptions. So editors are trying new approaches, in hopes of helping readers.

Once again, we've run out of time today. Thanks for all your comments and questions. See you here at noon next Wednesday!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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