Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 13, 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 took the column live Wednesday, Feb. 13 at noon ET to discuss the joys and pains of working for the federal government.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts


Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining this discussion today! I'll skip the usual rambling and go right to your questions and comments.


Mount Rainier, Md.: Mr. Barr, I know the Office of Personnel Management did the right thing in the National Capitol region today with its delayed start/unscheduled leave decision, but their communication was lousy. Their standard, which mirrors other federal agencies, is to post it to the Web site and have it on a recorded hotline, but not necessarily take any proactive approach to getting the word out -- by calling the radio stations, for instance.

Doing information dissemination that way may not be cost effective, but if your power is out, your Web browser is unlikely to work, and if your cell phone isn't charged you may not be able to call in to a hotline. This mirrors my experiences in southern Mississippi doing disaster response work after Katrina, when FEMA couldn't understand why folks with no power, no land-line phones and thus no Internet weren't signing up for relief via the FEMA Web site and call centers. Can you ask the OPM folks to be a little more proactive?

Stephen Barr: It's very tough to spread the word when the power goes out. OPM does a pretty good job of alerting TV and radio stations. Perhaps it's time to buy a hand-crank radio?


Pittsburgh: Stephen, one year ago I changed jobs from a federal job in Washington to a quasi-federal job in Pittsburgh. We're still paid on the GS scale and our funding comes from the federal government, but our checks are written on private accounts. Anyway, I'm writing because I recently had my annual review. Both supervisors had only positive comments to make about my work and performance in the past year, and said there were three types of raises available: single-step, double-step or grade increase. I only was given a single step.

In Washington things were much different. I was given a grade increase every year and there was no annual review meeting, just a note in my mailbox. Part of me feels compelled to ask about receiving only a single step. I'm not sure how to frame it in a way that won't end up hurting me. What I have heard around the water cooler is that double step increases are given as a matter of course to good employees. I did speak to one supervisor about this briefly. She assured me that after talking to those with whom I work directly that only positive things were said, and that this was memorialized. Any advice?

Stephen Barr: Well, Pittsburgh, don't know what to say.

Perhaps this happened because you only have been on the job for a year, and the bosses want to see more of your work product before boosting your pay significantly?

If your managers are pleased by your work, then they should get you in the mainstream of their pay practices in the coming year. If they don't, then I guess you have to speak up, and also try to figure out what's going on at your workplace. Best of luck!


Bowie, Md.: I work at an agency with pay bands. I feel I'm underpaid within my band. My boss says she agrees. However, the rules for movement within a band are stupid. I've been told they only can move me if I come to them with an outside offer. They can then match the other offer to keep me. I found a job and am working on the application now. So, should I tell my boss I'm applying now, should I have co-workers leak it to my boss, should I wait until I have an interview, or should I wait until I have an offer?

Stephen Barr: Well, it's my understanding you have to have the offer in hand, and that your bosses understand you are at risk of leaving and that keeping you is important.

Now, the FDA recently got criticized for awarding too much retention pay and bonuses -- in part because members of Congress were skeptical about documents claiming people would leave the FDA for a greener pasture -- so I would be careful here. You might find yourself going out a door you really don't want to close. I suggest you try to network with some buddies and see what they think and how they handled this situation.


Rockville, Md.: I recently applied for a job in another agency in the same department in which I currently work. The new job would be a promotion in the same GS series that I've worked in at the next lower grade for several years. Yet I had to submit my college transcripts from many, many years ago to prove that I meet the educational requirements for the new job. Do you or any human resource folks out there know if this is standard procedure throughout the government? It seems to be a waste of my time and the agency's time to have me prove something again that I already proved to get my current job.

Stephen Barr: It is a waste of time. I've heard of people who have a top security clearance changing jobs and being asked to supply the FBI with their college transcript -- from like 40 years ago....

The problem is that agencies do not trust one another, so employees jump through the hoops every time they move.


Pentagon Employee: Hello Stephen. I just passed my first year under NSPS, and I still think it is a waste of time and money. Although I did receive a larger raise, I found it odd that the raise was written on the evaluation in columns -- one if you had stayed GS and the other under NSPS. Somehow I feel this whole thing is going to come back and bite us (those of us who still have many years to work) in the back side.

Stephen Barr: Interesting. Some NSPSers have told me that their boss gave them a "narrative" but would not give them their precise rating, apparently because they didn't know how raises were being handled.

Congratulations on getting a larger raise! But you are right -- this whole process needs to be more transparent. That is what helps build trust.


Clifton, Va.: How would either Hillary's or Obama's health care reforms effect the federal employee health plans? I see the quality of my health care declining if either of these two plans becoming law, ending the only reason I stay in the Department of Defense as a civilian. My fiance is in the U.S. Army and I see my health care declining to the level she receives currently -- or worse, the level she will receive when she retires in about a year. I am sorry, I didn't sacrifice as a Defense employee all these years for awful health insurance, Hillary. Might be time for another revolution! Forget the have-nots and the ones too stupid to purchase health care even though they can afford it.

Stephen Barr: I don't think you should worry. My sense is that the Democratic candidates will keep the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program as a separate risk pool for insurance purposes, even as they extend something similar to it to the public. I don't think the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association and other employee organizations would accept changes that end up raising premiums for federal employees and retirees.


Maryland: For the Mt. Rainier, Md., poster. Here is OPM's Web site for Public Affairs and Communication; perhaps that person can call them directly with their suggestion.

Stephen Barr: Good idea. Thanks!


Washington: Hi Stephen. I'm new to property management and was interested in your Federal Diary article from last Friday. Per the 2009 property disposal pilot program, are you aware of any way to keep an eye on the real estate listings? Any insight would be appreciated. Thanks so much.

washingtonpost.com: What Bust? Bush Wants to Unload Some Real Estate (Post, Feb. 8)

Stephen Barr: This pilot project requires congressional approval, and while I think bipartisan support exists for it, the legislation may take a few months. Your best bet is to contact the Office of Management and Budget and get their advice on how to get in the loop on any listings.


Arlington, Va.: I work for a pretty standard domestic agency and certainly have no secrets to spill to any enemy. Because of new rules, people like me who have not had a background check in 15 years had to get one and, although I passed, it seems like another wasteful homeland security requirement, particularly if you note the that people who are arrested for selling government secrets have more security clearances than anyone possibly could ever need. Isn't this sort of thing really just a useless cash drain -- at least for people who don't have national security jobs?

Stephen Barr: Some of these background checks are required for the new standard federal identification card that is supposed to come out in October. It will have a couple of your fingerprints and some other information embedded in a chip, making you more trustworthy when you present your credential (or at least that is the way the thinking goes). It is eating up a lot of time and money, I think.


Washington: Maybe in the wake of Lurita Doan this was needed, but there seems to have been an ethics sit-down with political appointees this week.

Stephen Barr: Well, it is a campaign year. Good to see agency ethics officers are reminding key officials of the dos and don'ts.


Accokeek, Md.: Hi Stephen. Does OPM (or an independent site) have a list of the kind of discounts given to federal employees? An employee at the Apple store in Pentagon City told me they give a 5 percent discount if I showed my federal ID, and it got me to thinking about what other retailers would provide discounts. Thanks!

Stephen Barr: I don't know. In general, when a company offers a benefit to the government, it must apply to all federal employees, not just IT employees, for instance.

Probably the best approach, when considering a major purchase, is to check with the store or outlet to see what discounts they offer. Not a great solution, but one way to find out.


Washington: It was a sad day for the folks holding federal positions when Tom Davis announced he would not seek re-election. Rep. Davis was the best friend and supporter of benefits for the feds -- they will miss him. On the other hand -- the taxpayers are glad he's gone.

washingtonpost.com: Editorial: Tom Davis, Doer (Post, Feb. 1)

Stephen Barr: Yes indeed, Tom Davis was a strong supporter of higher pay for federal employees and guarded against any calls to reduce job and retirement benefits. He also worked to reshape federal procurement law. Perhaps more importantly, he was a Republican willing to lobby his GOP colleagues on federal employee issues; as we all know, a strong civil service requires bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Once again we've run out of time. Thanks for the questions and comments. See you back here at noon next Wednesday!


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