Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, March 19, 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

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today! Congress is on spring break, then returns for four months of work before breaking for the national political conventions. That may make it difficult for some proposals, such as providing a lump-sum partial payment for FERS sick leave upon retirement, to clear committees and get in line for floor votes. What would you like to see the Congress accomplish before August? I look forward to the feedback!

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Atlanta: Stephen, on March 6 the FAA proposed a record $10.2 million fine against an airline for making 1,451 flights using planes that had not had mandatory inspections. Reading about that in The Post made me wonder: Are FAA actions against an airline ever considered by GSA when they award government contract fares?

washingtonpost.com: Southwest Grounds 38 Jets for Inspection (Post, March 13)

Stephen Barr: Good question. In theory, agencies can take into account the past performance of a contractor or vendor when evaluating bids and awarding contracts. I'm not sure that they do, but perhaps we have a procurement expert who can give us some pointers today.

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Washington: Just wanted to say I enjoy your chats and really totally have forgotten about the guy who was there before you, who I guess is on radio. I wanted to say I'm scandalized by the number of people who seem to have five-day-a-week flexiplace, as I don't remember what they look like but they get checks. I mean, people get paid when they don't show up for work, but this is legally sanctioned. I just don't understand. At least our person who changed his station to Miami was let go after five years, so that's a start.

Stephen Barr: Thank you. This is what I call management breakdown. Flexi-place and flexi-time are great concepts and, I believe, improve morale -- but managers need to ensure that productivity remains at least the same or improves. (I say that on the assumption that these managers have the full support of their political bosses...)

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Detroit: Mr. Barr: The Thrift Board says they are limiting interfund transfers because of costs, but the costs of the TSP are one sixtieth of what a private sector mutual fund would be, and only the I fund has had any costs at all. When I asked them "how much this new limit would save the TSP," they sent me a fax that said they didn't know. Why won't you dig deeper into the TSP interfund transfer issue and report the facts about TSP costs, how they compare, and what the Thrift Board is doing in taking away employee rights?

washingtonpost.com: Thrift Savings Plan Crackdown Is Working (Post, March 18)

Stephen Barr: The TSP has explained its rationale in several documents and meetings. It's important to note that the Employee Advisory Council for the TSP, made up of leading federal and postal unions and management associations, has checked out the TSP restriction on trading and apparently has given it a green light. At the board's last meeting, TSP officials indicated that they had not received any push-back from members of Congress, either.

I urge you to read the March 10 Federal Register notice on the new trading policy. It includes this statement:

"Market times are forcing the fund manager to take extraordinary measures to mitigate the adverse impact of an investment behavior for which the TSP was not designed. These extraordinary measures generate costs borne by all participants and adversely affect the plan manager's ability to precisely replicate the performance of the selected indexes."

What questions would you ask to challenge that statement?

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Chicago: In today's column, it was mentioned that Health and Human Services management and the National Treasury Employees Union still are negotiating a contract for the six operating divisions NTEU "supposedly" represents. Back in the spring of 2006, the field reps assigned to Chicago gave a status report, but that was the last thing anyone heard. What is the reason NTEU cannot keep employees informed periodically as to what is going on, even if to only say "nothing at this time"?

Stephen Barr: It's my sense that agencies rarely share timely or complete information with unions during contract negotiations. There are legal considerations, as well as a desire not to show bargaining chips too early in the process. Your best solution probably is to ask a NTEU steward to send a message up to the union headquarters asking for a memo or a briefing that can be shared with the Chicago chapter.

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Washington: We got an e-mail this morning noting that the tax delinquency rate for employees at our agency is up about one percentage point in the past year, and is higher than the governmentwide average. Does the increase in tax problems of employees at our small agency reflect a general fall-off in compliance, or is it just us? My understanding is that the IRS doesn't release this info routinely to the public, but that the aggregate (by agency) data is FOIA-able. Perhaps you would like to request the information and write about it, and post the raw data on washingtonpost.com? Federal employees as a group are said to have a lower tax delinquency rate than the general public, but it would be interesting to compare different agencies.

Stephen Barr: Good idea! You are correct -- federal employees have a much lower tax delinquency rate than the general public, and usually better than the White House and congressional staffs.

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Manassas, Va.: Good morning, Stephen I am a former federal employee -- left to raise my children in 1995 after eight years with the Department of Defense. I have been back in the private sector since 1998. I really want to get back in the federal government; I submit resumes and never hear back. What is the trick or the easiest way for a former federal worker to get a foot back in the door? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Any ideas out there for this person?

My sense is that networking is crucial to getting back into the loop and finding out which agencies really are hiring these days. Increasingly, agencies contract out work that can be done on a routine basis by a vendor and try to focus their getting people with certain kinds of expertise. People also tell me that it generally takes a year or two to land a federal job. Best of luck!

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Re: TSP: I'm a mathematician and my first question about statements that TSP costs are going up is, show us. Publish months of transaction numbers and TSP costs to show a relationship between interfund transfers and costs to the TSP. Is that too difficult for TSP to provide?

Stephen Barr: TSP appears to object to the costs associated with rapid-fire frequent trading, especially from participants who are swinging $250,000 plus between funds.

The Federal Register notice that justifies the new trading restriction says that frequent trading increases transaction costs, including commissions paid to brokers, transfer taxes, the need for more money in futures and foregone interest. TSP also raises the issue of market impact, noting that market times wishing to eliminate their exposure in the I Fund because of possible market losses from world events could leave the other 99 percent of participants holding the bag on total losses in the I Fund.

The notice does not provide an analysis of how much costs go up as a result of such trading.

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Silverdale, Wash.: Hi Steve. Given that TSP costs were lower in 2007 than in 2006, and given that the TSP Board hasn't said how much these new limits on interfund transfers are going to save the overall fund per person, when do you plan to report on the real numbers involved?

Stephen Barr: Send me an e-mail with a question or two that would bring precision to the cost issue, please. Thanks.

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Pensacola, Fla.: TSP is cutting the number of potential IFTs from about 20 a month to two a month. Presently it cost each TSP participate about $4.00 per year for this transfer ability. How much of my $4.00 per year can I expect to save by giving up my potential to do an IFT on any trading day?

Stephen Barr: Help me on the math here. If each interfund transfer costs $4, and there are 3.8 million investors in the TSP, then I guess a lot of money can be saved with this restriction, right?

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Washington: I favor the new TSP restrictions. If people want do to active market trading, they are free to invest in privately run accounts. Why should my costs be raised because of the actions of a few people?

Stephen Barr: That seems to be a chief issue for the TSP board.

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Arlington, Va.: Failing to file federal income tax returns is a crime. Not paying federal income taxes is an indication of financial irresponsibility. Both issues will affect your ability to occupy a sensitive position and maintain a security clearance in the federal government. Most Defense Department adjudication facilities do not look very kindly on not paying your federal income taxes -- i.e. their salaries! Numerous contractors, feds and military workers have lost their clearances because of these issues -- and their jobs.

Stephen Barr: Thanks. That's to the point.

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Washington: For the reader from Manassas trying to get back into federal government, I think the answer is don't leave -- go on leave, be sick, take vacations, complain, but don't leave the federal government. There's no way back in, as that's the way they like it. But when they have you, they'll make it so that you're 102 before you can retire.

Stephen Barr: Now, now. I don't think it's that bad...

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Silver Spring, Md.: How easy or difficult is it for a current fed to move to a new position with another department of agency? And are there certain job categories that are more universal than others, making it easier for someone in that job category to move around?

Stephen Barr: About three-quarters of federal jobs are in the professional and administrative categories, but many require precise skills (engineers, computer programmers, biologists), so I don't know that I can generalize here.

Any thoughts, folks?

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In Fedtown: Hello Steve. Do you know what the tea leaves are saying about the next cabinet? I know everybody is focused on the presidential election, but you also have to think about the kinds of people who may be put in place in the agencies. There always seems to be a problem filling presidential appointee spots, with many even staying vacant for a few years, so do you think the next president will try to get things moving by working harder to fill those slots? And I don't mean like the veterinarian nominated for the women's health office at one of the large federal human services agencies, because the pool of candidates was so small. Perhaps some of those gigs should be career, or SES even?

Stephen Barr: No crystal ball here.

Interestingly, research by Paul Light of New York University found that most political appointees come from around the Beltway and that relatively few come to Washington from far-away states. Could be we have a cottage industry here of folks who come and go from government based on which party controls the White House.

It clearly would make sense to reduce the number of political appointees and turn more positions over to the SES, but I don't see either political party giving up on a time-honored system for rewarding their best campaign workers.

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Arlington, Va.: Are military retirements part of Social Security? Put another way, when Social Security funds are depleted in 2018 (or 2040), would that mean the funding for military retirements would have dried up too?

Stephen Barr: Nope -- military retiree pay is financed separately, and Congress will not let that system fall apart. I'm confident in that prediction.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: What is the status of the bill in Congress that would allow retirees to come back to work part-time at their old jobs and receive their pension as well as a salary for the work?

Stephen Barr: The bills are stalled, primarily because of union objections. Unions think bringing back retirees will make it more difficult for employees to move up their career ladders, and suggest that agencies put more effort into retaining current employees rather than using retirees as a stop-gap solution.

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Maryland Fed: To Manassas -- just get your resume posted on USAJobs and make it searchable for fed employers. Also, it is a good practice to fine-tune and post your resume online. Let recruiters contact you or keep your resume private. Once you create a My USAjobs account you can receive automated job alerts and create job agents for updates on the latest listings. Make sure you fine-tune your job series and salary, plus the geographic area you prefer.

Once you do that the e-mails for open fed jobs will land right on your computer, and you then apply for the ones you want. It is a nice feature, but it still takes several months to land the job or even get an interview. Hang in there they will start to come once you set up your profile on USAjobs.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for those tips!

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Vienna, Va.:"I favor the new TSP restrictions. If people want do to active market trading, they are free to invest in privately run accounts. Why should my costs be raised because of the actions of a few people?" Hear hear! I do not want you to think that everyone out there is complaining about this change.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Vienna.

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Re: TSP: I'm a financial economist with two masters degrees in finance. My TSP is in L-2040 and I never move it. Why? Because I have many years until retirement, and as I near retirement the money is auto-rebalanced for me -- and I also know that trying to "time" the market will, more times than not, hurt me. Heck, many co-workers were out of the market yesterday. As the famous infomercial about that rotating oven says "set it and forget it."

Stephen Barr: A good point. Some data collected several years ago showed that if an investor was out of the stock market for as little as two or three days when stocks soared, then they had lost out for the whole year. The lifecycle funds are a nice invention, because they rebalance to reduce risk as you near retirement. Best of luck!

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Manassas, Va.: As you seem to be receiving (and taking) lots of input from folks that are against the TSP trade restrictions, let me just weigh in on the opposing side. TSP was not set up for this kind of activity, regardless of costs. If you don't like the restrictions, then go play the market outside of TSP. Simple as that. And, while you are demanding data, how about we also have data gathered on when all of these transactions are made, from what computers, so we can calculate lost productivity at work? Perhaps we can then subtract that amount from traders' paychecks.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for that feedback!

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Washington: Re: Silver Spring -- I've known people in transportable areas (accounting, contracts, etc.) who have moved among very different agencies. For narrower skill sets, there's still mobility -- people move from the Centers for Disease Control to the National Institutes of Health, from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to NIH, medical areas of Defense to Health and Human Services agencies, etc.

Stephen Barr: Thanks much!

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. B: It can be easy for a "fed" to move between agencies. If we're talking about a just plain reassignment, the person has to be qualified (usually that means the same job series) and the full-performance level of the two positions have to be the same (or the one being reassigned "to" be of lower full-performance level). Of course, you also have to meet security clearance requirements and anything else that the new agency might require that the old one didn't.

Stephen Barr: Thank you!

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Washington: Re: Manassas -- agencies' HR departments vary in their responsiveness and feedback. The same is true in the private sector, even for highly responsible positions. It's useful to talk with people in the agencies you are looking at to see what positions are truly open and which ones have viable or wired internal candidates. Again, the same advise applies (and works) in the private sector. There's no magic to this, you just have to keep looking and get whatever information you can find. The same would be true if you were applying to Wal-Mart.

Stephen Barr: Good point.

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Pensacola, Fla.: In the below question, The TSP costs of $4.00 are for a full year per each participant, not per IFT. Please readdress. Thanks.

"Pensacola, Fla.: TSP is cutting the number of potential IFTs from about 20 a month to two a month. Presently it cost each TSP participate about $4.00 per year for this transfer ability. How much of my $4.00 per year can I expect to save by giving up my potential to do an IFT on any trading day?

"Stephen Barr: Help me on the math here. If each interfund transfer costs $4, and there are 3.8 million investors in the TSP, then I guess a lot of money can be saved with this restriction, right?"

Stephen Barr: Well, the TSP reads the law authorizing its creation as a mandate to always drive down costs. So, is $4 per person the right cost to bear, or can it increase, or should it be lower?

It's clear to those of you in this discussion that I don't have any great insights to offer on TSP costs vs. trading restrictions. But I'll keep trying.

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Northern Virginia: I think the wrong woman was chosen to testify before Congress on parental leave the other week. She said she had 16 years of federal time -- that woman would have 8 hours of leave every pay period, for a total of an automatic gain of 26 days a year -- five weeks -- on top of whatever sick and annual leave she says she's saving in case she needs time off.

I sympathize with the babies issue, but come on -- other places may offer eight weeks of paid parental leave, but I bet they don't allow you to gain five weeks of annual leave per year, or let you keep six weeks of it on the books. She has can get almost three months of paid annual leave every year! This is one reason why I don't support the paid parental leave (and I do have kids), but I do support the Office of Personnel Management and the short-term disability plan, which is available to all federal employees. That way people can choose to have a safety net even if they don't have kids, but perhaps have a bad car accident or other tragic incident.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback.

The government clearly has some generous leave policies, but the notion of paid parental leave has caught on at a number of Fortune 100 companies, and advocates for paid parental leave believe it will help make the government more competitive in recruiting youngsters. Giving employees the option to purchase a short-term disability insurance policy may be the solution. Like many Washington debates, it would be helpful if we had more hard data on costs, trends and potential use.

Once again, we've run out of time. Thanks to all who joined in this discussion -- great questions and excellent feedback. I hope you find this transcript as informative as I do! See you back here at noon next Wednesday.

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