Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 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.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

Bryant was named director of communications and public liaison at OPM in August 2005, after having served as deputy director of communications for the agency since June 2002. Before joining OPM, Bryant owned a research and communications company for nearly 20 years.

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today. We have some news breaking this morning -- the Transportation Security Administration and the Merit Systems Protection Board have announced an agreement that will permit security screeners to appeal whistleblower retaliation complaints to the merit board. With that, we'll open this up to a broad range of comment and questions. Thanks for spending all or part of your lunch break with us today!

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Washington: Do you know what the policy is regarding government employees using their government IDs to get special hotel rates (that are advertised) when they stay for personal reasons and not business? There's quite some debate in my office, and no one is sure if it violates the ethics policy. Thank you.

Stephen Barr: Federal employees are not supposed to use their official position for private gain, according to the law.

If you don't have an ethics officer in your agency to sort out this issue, I recommend you review material posted on the Office of Government Ethics web site and then give them a call.

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Washington: Thanks for your articles on Foreign Service health requirements. I always thought their no HIV guidelines were a way of saying "homosexuals need not apply"; thanks for confirming that. I won't in the future.

washingtonpost.com: Refusing to Give Up On the Foreign Service (Post, Feb. 25)

Stephen Barr: I have talked with Foreign Service Officers who are gay, and most say they have had a rewarding career in diplomacy. But there are issues involving security clearances, as well as medical clearances. At times, these types of issues have created problems, some of them say.

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dsrobins: The State Department's medical clearance procedures are deeply flawed, corrupt and subject to manipulation by senior officials in the department. Part of the problem is that State hires poorly qualified doctors to work in its Medical Services Division and pays them poorly in comparison to the private sector. During my 25 year Foreign Service career, I saw numerous examples of misdiagnoses, incompetence and neglect by Foreign Service medical officers. Indeed, while stationed in Baghdad, I had a medical problem and found an Iraqi doctor who was a far better diagnostician than the traveling doctor that State rarely sent to the post. State should farm out its Medical Services Division to the Pentagon and use military doctors instead. They are far better than the hacks State currently employs.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for your viewpoint. The real issue, however, may be inadequate funding for medical services, especially as the department seems to have more and more hardship posts. There is a sense that the department is stretched thin these days.

Still, I've heard from people who say they received first-class treatment for injuries and illness, with State providing them with access to good doctors.

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tunisjs: There are many ways to serve one's country, in and out of uniform, in and out of the government. There are many more qualified applicants than there are funded slots. It is regretful that otherwise qualified applicants are disqualified on medical grounds, but Foreign Service Officers must be able to serve in the widest variety of locations, some of which have limited access to first-class medical care and communications. What happens if Mr. Boland runs out of meds, none are available in the local economy and the mail pouch takes several weeks, all of which can and does happen? What about interactions with anti-malarial drugs and the myriad other preventive medicines that FSOs must take? What if the stress found in some assignments overwhelms his current prescription? If he is excused from duty, who picks up the slack? The Foreign Service is already 1,200 officers short.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for your posting. This is a difficult issue to sort out.

Some of the confusion here may be because the State Department needs to be more clear about medical services. It apparently has no problems with providing health care to employees overseas, and I'm told that a number of Foreign Service officers take medications for stress, depression, anxiety, etc. But job applicants must be cleared for worldwide service, and I guess a number have been turned down because they are found fit to serve in 60 percent of the overseas posts, but not 100 percent.

Hopefully we'll get more clarity on this in coming months.

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Washington: Regarding government rates when on personal travel, we've been told that we can do this. It is the same as getting an AAA or AARP discount at the hotel. We are a group of individuals who are receiving a discount because we are a member of a group. We aren't gaining -- just not spending. Now, if the hotel policy is to give the government rate only when the customer is on official travel, we cannot lie.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the clarification, but I'm not sure it is the same as AAA or AARP -- you do pay for membership in those groups, and discounts are a perk of membership, right?

So perhaps a hotel discount is simply that -- a goodwill effort by an industry.

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Arlington, Va.: It doesn't violate the ethics rules and regulations. Many hotel chains give discounts to employees of certain employers when they are staying for nonbusiness travel. I have asked for and used the government rate for 25 years when on personal travel.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback!

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Arlington, Va.: The Thrift Savings Plan has just offered most employees an opportunity to transfer some of the current funds into a Roth IRA. This would mean individuals who do roll over into a Roth have to pay tax on that amount transferred. Has the TSP set a date for setting up a Roth option in the TSP so employees can save into a Roth IRA directly ?

Stephen Barr: The TSP has added this option for people making withdrawals, and I strongly urge you read the Q&A that the TSP has posted on its Web site. This is one of those areas where it's important to think through the tax and retirement implications. Best of luck!

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Arlington, Va.: My brother is project manager for one of the big three accounting firms. He gets discounts at various hotel chains for personal travel. He isn't a member of anything. He also gets a discount on purchasing a new car or a cell phone. I got the government rate on my cell phone and minutes for personal use. I am one of the few feds who doesn't have one for official use.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback. A number of companies have agreements with retailers and chains that provide a discount or benefit to employees, and I assume they believe this makes smart financial sense for them to offer the perk.

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Clifton, Va.: Your sexual preference and your resulting love life is only of concern if the conduct is illegal and if you can be pressured or coerced because of it. Federal government security clearance regulations don't care if you are gay or straight or even transgendered, or somewhere in between! We would be skewered in the press and before Congress if we denied or revoked anyone's clearance for just being gay.

Stephen Barr: Right.

Still, some folks believe that anti-gay bias is a factor in decisions to yank security clearances, and effectively end a career. They also contend that internal review boards take too long to sort out disputes with bosses.

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Washington: Re: Government employees on non-governmental travel: This item was addressed in Government Executive or Federal Times or something similar not too long ago. The fact was that government employees may use government rates and hotel offers even if they're on nongovernmental travel. I don't think putting it on a government credit card will wash, but simply being offered the rate is no big deal.

It's up there (no pun intended) with the frequent flier miles thing: you get to keep them even if you're flying on government business, but don't expect the government to track them. If you lose them or mess up your frequent flier program, that's your problem. I've been offered the rate for overseas travel, but have declined that because I don't want to identify myself as a government employee outside of the U.S.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that feedback.

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Washington: Any word on the paid maternity leave idea going through Congress? My husband and I are planning to start a family in the next two years and I am curious to know if paid maternity leave actually could happen.

Stephen Barr: Congress may hold hearings this year, a Democratic aide tells me. But my guess is that various federal workforce proposals will be bottled up until Congress learns who is going to be president in 2009.

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Washington While 22 years old, this document answers the question. Regarding that practice, our memorandum indicated that an employee may accept the government rate while on personal travel, subject to two limitations: First, an employee should not accept the government rate if the offerer has or is seeking to do business with the agency, is regulated by the agency, or has interests that could be substantially affected by the employee's performance of his duties. Second, the employee may not misrepresent the purpose of the travel, i.e. say that he is on business, in order to obtain rates that are not available for personal travel.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for this clarification.

Although our posters today clearly believe there is no ethics problem with accepting hotel discounts, I would think that a person's job and agency can be considerations. In this age of Inspector General hotline complaints, I would want to know that my ethics officer has okayed the practice.

It's also possible that I'm just a nervous nanny here...

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Greetings from Virginia!: Hi, Steve. I'm a current federal employee who has been applying for jobs, you know, moving onward and upward, hopefully. I know each agency has individual hiring authority, but what in the heck is with there being so many different application packages? When USAJobs came out, I thought it was great that it would be almost like one-stop-shopping: scan jobs, post resume, submit resume through site, etc. But, no!

I missed out on one job because you must mail all your stuff in -- nothing electronically submitted. Another few are using these other resume-submission/Knowledge, Skills and Abilities-answering software packages that require me to have several types of fed resumes now -- not to mention account numbers and passwords. The hiring needs can't be that different at each agency -- except perhaps the military -- as they all ask for the same types of stuff. Perhaps this could be a future column subject for you. Thanks, and keep up the good work for us!

Stephen Barr: A good idea.

Some of the differences may be traced to software vendors, who create job-hiring screens for agencies. Even if there was a centralized application process, I wager that agencies would then create supplemental forms to fill out that suited their own purposes.

Just the joys of technology, eh?

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Washington: Re: Paid maternity leave is a very bad thing for feds to have. What about those of us who don't have kids? We have to take unpaid leave if we don't have enough annual leave and want to take extended leave for things to learn and bring back to the workplace. Where's our benefit? And if someone thinks that those paid weeks of maternity leave are going to keep everything normal, think again. There will be serious -- I mean serious-- resentment among other employees in your office. And just because you have paid maternity leave, that's no guarantee that your immediate office/agency will be so family friendly when you need to take leave in the months and years ahead for things regarding your kids. I'm far from a cynic, just a realist after more than a dozen years in the fed workforce.

Stephen Barr: Many large companies offer paid parental leave and believe it improves recruitment and retention. Probably the best course is for OPM and Office of Management and Budget to undertake a cost-benefit analysis, with an eye to seeing if such a benefit would make the government more competitive in the labor market.

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Midwest: Marriott, for example, does not have government rate on weekends. I certainly have traveled on official business and needed a Sunday night or Friday night stay. So it is all a corporate policy -- vendors can provide whatever deals and discounts that suit their own goals, and the users of their services have the option to benefit, or not.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that example!

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Re: Clifton, Va.: While the government cannot ask about your sexual orientation, if you're gay and in the military but not out, you can be coerced or lose your job. By default that "criminalizes" being gay. Also, when someone wants to find fault, they can. In my agency, the senior managers have open and public affairs with other employees, but never are penalized. (Adultery is not an issue, providing it does not represent really, really bad moral character, i.e. lack of discretion.) But those on the lower end of the hierarchy get their entire sexual history reviewed and scrutinized.

Stephen Barr: Sigh.

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Re: Ethics: Remember that each agency also implements ethics rules differently and may have different regulations. I know mine does not allow us to use the hotel reduction when not on official travel.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for making that point.

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Arlington, Va.: Despite the Office of Personnel Management's claims they are closing investigations for security clearance problems still exist with them for Defense. OPM will close an investigation without resolving issues to meet their timeliness requirements. Therefore the Defense Department's CAFs are left with an investigation that is garbage. They in turn have to go out to get the info needed to resolve issues and therefore don't meet their timeliness goals.

Oftentimes we get investigations where the subject admits to recent arrests but OPM cant find any record. A check of public databases shows these arrests. OPM spins things to their own benefit quicker the Clinton campaign machine. Those of us in the DOD adjudication community long for the days of Defense Security Service investigation and the "golden years." OPM's current investigative product is the worst I have seen in my 30 years in the DOD personnel security program.

Stephen Barr: There are clearly different views on the timeliness of background checks and adjudications. OPM and OMB believe they are meeting goals laid out in law.

Much of the recent GAO research has focused on the problems that Defense contractors have in getting their clearances. Perhaps it is time for a lawmaker to call for a review of the whole process.

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Re: Anti-malarial drugs: My question is that if they know that certain medications may cause difficult side effects (Lariam and psychosis), isn't the government creating a problem for itself? They don't know for whom it will cause problems. We can guarantee they won't review it fairly and equitably.

Stephen Barr: I don't think you can expect an agency to design hiring and medical policies that can predict every situation. The goal should be to create a fair hiring system, with clear medical guidelines. It is a difficult task, but it can be done, and the guidelines can change as medical science advances and we know more.

Once again, we've run out of time. Thanks for your comments, and thanks for the continuing education you provide me. I hope these chats are as useful to you as they are to me! See you back 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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