Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, May 7, 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: Welcome to this discussion! If you have not read The Post front-page story today on federal agents raiding the Office of Special Counsel, I urge you to take time to do so. It was a rather remarkable event but also a perplexing one for federal employees who trust agencies to protect their interests. With that, let's go to the questions and comments.

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Washington: What are the chances the new inspector general legislation gets signed into law by the president? What are the president's issues with previous versions? From your perspective, do inspectors general really help make the government more effective? Again, from your perspective what could be done with the IGs to make needed improvements to help government become more effective?

Stephen Barr: The chances are good. The House and Senate are strongly on record in favor of IG reform, so all that is needed is for the bill sponsors to reach a compromise. The Senate version is closer to what the president wants, so that's the bill to watch. Assuming good will all around, the Hill should have another bill to vote on before the August break.

As for your question about IGs making the government more effective, that's difficult to answer. They clear help police federal programs, crack down on wasteful practices and make numerous recommendations for improvement in the management of the programs. They also have more to do than they have staff and money, and so I think IGs tend to focus on areas where they get their greatest rewards, rather than stepping back and taking a more strategic view.

The IGs like to be independent and do things their own way, but this is a big government and I would like to see them work in a more collaborative fashion, teaming up to tackle certain issues, make their recommendations and then move as a team to the next big issue. I think that would help make the government more effective.

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Washington: Steve: The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General has decided to split its GS-12/13 pay band into two segments -- "auditor" and "senior auditor" -- and require "auditors" to have one year in grade (GS-12 or equivalent) before they can be promoted to senior auditor. You also have to be a senior auditor to be promoted to a project manager position (GS-14). What do your readers think of that? FYI, I have applied for GS-14 positions within Defense and have made the best-qualified list even though I am not a senior auditor. Feel free to use the Department of Defense OIG in your discussion -- maybe someone will realize how stupid the policy is.

Stephen Barr: This prompts a couple of thoughts. Is there a big distinction between the responsibilities of auditor and senior auditor? Is this being done as part of the National Security Personnel System, which offers a lot of flexibility in pay bands and in lateral moves?

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Washington: Your Monday column touches on many issues facing the government. Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Not Asked What They Can Do for Their Country (Post, May 5)

Stephen Barr: Thank you, I appreciate the feedback.

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Washington: Former Hill staffer and recent law school graduate. The early comments on this morning's column were dead on ... the Federal hiring process is ridiculous. I've applied for GS-11 attorney position in 11 agencies and had one interview, three rejection letters, and seven nonresponses. The veteran's preference, while politically expedient, seems to impede efficient hiring and timely filling of positions, especially given the drain at FAA among others. What can be done to resolve the problems?

washingtonpost.com: Hiring After the Baby-Boom Brain Drain (Post, May 7)

Stephen Barr: Goodness knows people have tried a number of ideas to fix federal hiring -- with little success.

I'm not sure any of this will change unless the No. 1 and No. 2 in each agency make it a priority. Let's face it, smart, talented people have a lot of employment choices these days, and a slow-moving government is going to lose people that it needs.

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Hiring for the retirement boom: The biggest problem with federal hiring is still that it is toooooo sloooooow. Qualified young people (especially new/recent grads) want/need a job now, and will take the private industry job offered because it means an income coming in, rather that waiting months for the government to act. In fact, I would wager that there are many who would make great public servants who don't even apply because the government has that reputation.

Stephen Barr: I agree. A would-be applicant, with good skills and an upstanding demeanor, took a look at the USAJobs application process and deemed it not worth his time. He related all this in good humor, knowing that he'll get a warmer welcome in private-sector HR offices.

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Des Plaines, Ill.: I was interested in your column about federal jobs. I was job hunting last fall. One of the positions I applied for was with the VA. I'm sure the job paid less than half of what I'm making now as an association executive, but I was interested as a Marine Corps veteran and because it was in West Virginia, and we love the mountains.

Weeks later I received a notice saying I had not been considered because I failed to file a particular form I had not known about. I still have no idea what the form was for, they just gave the document number. They didn't notify me my application was incomplete, or give me a chance to file it, but just discarded my application. I decided not to apply for other federal jobs -- not worth the effort. For private sector jobs, you send a resume, references and a cover letter. For government jobs, you fill out endless forms, and if you miss one, you're out. It seems designed to protect people already in the system from outside competition.

Stephen Barr: Thank you for providing this example of what's wrong in federal hiring.

I don't understand why the government doesn't just ask for a one-page letter and a one-page resume. Most bosses can use those two pages to weed out applicants who are not qualified. The survivors could then be put through the rigors of filling out all the forms. And you are spot-on -- the agencies should send out a complete package, not leave it to the applicant to figure out what forms are required.

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Midwesterner: I see many articles out that financial positions (accountants auditors analysts) are in demand by the federal government and will be short-term with the so-called "wave of retirements" that is supposed to happen. Where I reside you can count openings on your hands. What is the truth about these "vacancies"?

washingtonpost.com: Swell in Contracting Officers May Not Keep Pace With Retirements (Post, May 6)

Stephen Barr: Job openings vary by agency and region, so it is possible that the overall totals for supply and demand have little relation to your community.

There's also one big unknown: Baby boomers often say they are retiring, but when the times come, they decide to stay on for another year. I currently am looking for data on whether the economic slowdown is going to mean more feds are sticking with their jobs rather than heading off into retirement.

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Washington: It seems from what I've heard that if you are applying for higher-level positions, the listings are merely for form -- that an internal candidate is already in mind for those positions. So, the only way to get a high-level spot is by starting at the bottom, especially if you have no prior government experience. Is this true?

Stephen Barr: Not sure. Clearly, entering the government after college on an intern program is a time-tested method of getting in the door and assessing how long it might take to move up.

But the government's average hiring age is now about 33 years old, which means Uncle Sam is bringing in people who have held at least one or two jobs and know what kind of occupation they want to pursue. I also hear of more agencies hiring older workers, especially for high-level management positions and technology positions.

But data also shows that many agencies promote from within, which suggests that only youngsters ready for the lower ranks need apply.

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Falls Church, Va.: Mr Barr, thanks for taking my question. I feel a need to correct a common misperception about NSPS. While we can supposedly hire new employees much faster under NSPS, my experience was very different. It took me eight long months of constant battles to hire two bright young people into my agency in the Department of Defense. Do you think this was an unusual experience, or is it commonplace with NSPS? How are we supposed to address the impending "brain drain" in government if our hiring practices do not allow quick hiring decisions? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Good point to raise, Falls Church. My sense is that despite the streamlining provided by NSPS, that most agencies are moving cautiously and feel more comfortable doing things the old way. Some poor political decisions at the launch of NSPS, especially those that triggered court battles with unions and led to congressional tinkering, has no doubt reinforced a sense of caution among Defense managers. And it's also possible that everyone is waiting for the next administration...

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Washington: Re: Hiring -- I'm a current fed who was told I would be in the running for a career SES, but that OPM and the agency have put a stop to all SES hiring for the rest of this administration. What do you know about this, and is there a way around it? This was my big chance.

Stephen Barr: That is news to me. Most agencies are allocated a certain number of SES slots, and some like to keep them filled. OPM suspended a SES development program that it runs because of concern over how it was handled this year, but it will be on track by this summer and only involves about a dozen people, I think. You may be encountering some flip-flopping because of budget issues or because agencies are starting to focus on the presidential transition and may be deciding to leave some personnel decisions to the next team. But frankly, I don't really know.

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Washington: Does the federal government have a freeze on hiring? Why does the federal government hire only contractors? Some of these contractors have employees' personal information, which makes identity theft very easy.

Stephen Barr: Most government hiring is driven by budget resources and program demands. In many agencies, contractors are easier to hire and let go, and salaries are charged off to program accounts. And, truth be told, some agencies could not deliver today without contractors.

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Northern Virginia: The incoming president will be the first one after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Any thoughts on what may happen to the agencies under its umbrella -- any shifting around/in/out?

Stephen Barr: A good question. At one point, I thought it was possible that some Department of Homeland Security agencies might stage a jail break. But I'm less certain of that now, given the passage of time and the reluctance of the Congress to give up its jurisdictional power. What we may see is more components evolving into independent fiefdoms inside DHS, with the headquarters serving as a policy coordinator and crisis manager. Will be interesting to watch, regardless.

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Here in Governmentland: I think the biggest problem with most agency secretaries is that while they're into public service, most never have been in the federal service at some higher level to see for themselves what the problems are. They're often academics or from the corporate sector and have no idea about the various government agency cultures that exist. I think if more former feds were approached with the option, many would take it.

Stephen Barr: A good point. I sometimes think that for every good political appointee there are a half-dozen who parachute in and never understand how their agency works. Still, many agencies are rather insular, and that kind of culture does not serve employees well over the long haul.

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Federal jobs -- complete package: FYI, many openings require that you log on to their internal system before being able to see additional details about the job, especially the questionnaire. Part of the logon process includes supplying your social security number. Why would anyone want to take the time and effort to supply their personal information just to find out that they don't qualify for the job? OPM is too lax on forcing agencies to make it easier to obtain information about a job before applying.

Stephen Barr: Excellent point -- we're all wary of handing out personal information via the Web these days.

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Washington: When a federal job is posted and open for only two weeks (at the GS 11-13 level), does that indicate that the agency is in a hurry to fill the position, or already has chosen an internal candidate and is going through the motions?

Stephen Barr: Maybe. Maybe not. I always think it is good to throw your hat in the ring if you genuinely are interested in a position.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm submitting early, since I can't be online during the chat. What is the reach of the Hatch Act? As a federal employee, I know I can't wear a campaign button, campaign for anyone running for any office in the U.S. or forward any e-mail from my work e-mail that supports a candidate, but where does it stop? What if I'm at a party where there are none of my coworkers and someone asks me who I'm voting for for president and why? If I answer, can that be construed as campaigning? What if I'm on my home e-mail account, and I want to forward something about a candidate to someone? Can that do me in? What about visiting a candidate's Web site? At work? At home?

Some of these restrictions strike me as flat-out unconstitutional, but the message I've been getting from media sources (not my office -- it's pretty apolitical) is to keep your mouth shut and fingers silent 24/7. What are the real guidelines? What can I safely say without losing my job? Can I still vote? (Okay, that last one was sarcastic...)

Stephen Barr: Just now found your query in the pile here, and your questions are important. I'm no Hatch Act expert, so take me with that grain of salt.

One of the problems is that the law was written in 1939 and updated in 1993, just as the Internet exploded. So the lawmakers were worried about campaign buttons in the office, not where to draw the line on the content of e-mails.

Here's my take: don't engage in political activity inside a government building or while on duty. Restrict your political fun to your off-duty hours. But don't solicit political donations for a candidate; that should be easy, but some Hatch Act lawyers think that posting political comments on a candidate's web site, from your home computer, could be a violation if the Web site requests campaign contributions.

Two ideas. Visit www.osc.gov and review the Hatch Act dos and don'ts. Ask your agency ethics officer to make a town hall presentation on the Hatch Act and the proper use of government equipment and office space.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Regarding the question from Des Plaines, Ill. -- while I agree that the federal application process is tedious and hard to follow, on USAJobs postings, I always have seen a list of the exact items and forms needed to complete the application, and a clear statement that if any of the information is missing, the application will be considered incomplete and will not be reviewed.

Stephen Barr: Good to know. Still, some of the job announcements pack a lot of information and it may be understandable that some things don't pop out at people who are focused on job qualifications rather than all the forms that may have to be filed.

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Washington: Take private sector job while you wait: Honestly ... I feel for the applicants in the federal job process ... the best thing to do is to apply and still take that private sector job while you wait ... I have done this and it really relieves the anxiety associated with the waiting game. Best of luck!

Stephen Barr: Yep. It always seems better to be in a job while looking for a job.

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Federal Hiring...: The process is too bogged down with bureaucracy ... uses outdated methods to classify personnel with outdated criteria that haven't kept pace with evolving curricula ... requires too many forms. ... It only took 19 months to hire someone with 10 years of experience.

Stephen Barr: And I'm surprised someone would wait 19 months ... but it could have been a dream match...

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Hiring from within: At my federal agency, the short "open" period for a position is very clearly meant to say that management already has "hot-wired" somebody for that position and it's not worth the effort to apply. People should look for open periods of a month or longer.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the feedback.

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Fed Veteran: Re: Former Hill staffer and recent law school graduate -- veteran's preference is neither politically expedient nor is it likely your problem. More to the point, if you're losing jobs to veteran-applicants, then the preference is working exactly as Congress intended. If you strongly disagree, the recruiter is right down the street.

Stephen Barr: Veterans preference is the law of the land. Congress also asks agencies to hire the disabled and maintain diversity in their workforces. Federal hiring is a regulated process, more so than in the private sector.

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Washington: Every couple of years, something happens like gas prices rising, a new report on climate change, etc., that makes the heads of federal agencies drown us in press releases about how friendly they are to telecommuting -- unless an employee actually wants to do it. Last week I had to get something quick done while home sick, only to discover that the agency I work for has failed to update the software that allows us to work from home to accommodate Vista, and has no plans to do so. When I called IT to ask why, they said "no one's really supposed to use it, anyway."

Stephen Barr: Aaargh, as they say.

I hope you gave your boss an earful about the IT office.

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Washington: I find all this talk about the cumbersome hiring process interesting. My agency posts an ad, get resumes, interviews people the next week or so, then decides if they want to hire them. I know people who have started their jobs within three weeks of applying. Oh, and we routinely post for upper-level (GS-15) people and hire from the outside. My agency (and many others) didn't hire people for a long time, so now that we have more retirements, there are a lot of people with one to six years of experience, but nobody to take the senior spots that need 10-20 years.

Stephen Barr: Thank you for the posting. Congress has provided a lot of leeway in hiring, and some agencies have taken advantage. OPM also backs a 45-day hiring process, which is better than the model used by some large corporations.

But, alas, my sense is that your agency is the exception, not the rule.

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Arlington, Va.: In response to the earlier poster's inquiry about whether or not the government hires higher-level people from outside, I think it is more rare than promoting from within, but it does happen. I had a friend get an offer for a GS-15 attorney position at the Department of Labor this year, and he never has worked for the feds a day in his life! I am not saying it is terribly common, but I do think the government is looking for people with certain skills sets (he had very specific litigation experience) and will look outside if need be.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Arlington. The high-level jobs require certain types of education and experience, and many agencies are open to bringing in outsiders to get the right skills.

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KSAs: Your suggestion that a one page letter and one page resume would be a better way to recruit new feds makes so much sense it has no chance. If that were offered to your average personnel specialist, they would run in the other direction because they look at the mysteries of the KSA as a way to eliminate applicants and weed them to a manageable number.

Heaven knows the opening of the administrative law judge exam last year proved that. Of the approximately 1,300 who managed to submit their (long and involved) applications to OPM before the (very short) deadline, only half went on to the testing and interviewing phase: the rest were deemed not qualified because they did not put the month in their bar admission, and who knows what else. When you have 20-year litigators found to be "not qualified" by OPM screeners, you know there is simple weeding going on, and not just a search for the best of a (large) pool of applicants.

Stephen Barr: Good point.

My guess is that some agencies are swamped in applications from people who are not qualified and will never get a job there, and others have a ton of exceptional applicants and can't figure out what to do.

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Swansboro, N.C.: I am a CSRS retiree with qualifying social security credits. I have made many contacts with congressional offices asking support to eliminate the windfall provision that reduces social security benefits. It only seems fair that what one has earned should be given back. What are the prospects? Also, do you think that retirees ever will get the same break as regular employees in paying health care premiums with before-tax income? Thank you.

Stephen Barr: Don't think so. These two legislative fixes carry big price tags, and this Congress does not seem in the mood to absorb such costs.

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Springfield, Va.: I'm seriously concerned about the FERS retirement. I will not retire until 2018, but the 1 percent is nothing for federal retirees as the Consumer Price Index is rising. Food, gas, health, mortgages -- this will not be enough, not even with TSP and Social Security (if the illegals haven't sucked all of it out), which could be gone. Help. Whom do we contact about the FERS retirement?

Stephen Barr: FERS was created by the Congress, so you should bring your concerns to the attention of as many members of Congress as possible.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Is it true that sometime later this year that federal employees (I'm in Health and Human Services) will be able to use not only the flexible spending account program (for dependent care and medical expenses), but also a health savings account? My accountant made some noises about that earlier this year. I told him not to get my hopes up. I would love to do that too, but it would be on top of the pre-tax family health insurance, TSP, FSA and post-tax CFC (*sigh*). Of course that's assuming I'll have a job and can somehow get by on less than 50 percent of my gross. I'm getting by on 53 percent now. ... A woman can dream, right?

Stephen Barr: Many of the high-deductible health insurance plans feature a health savings account. My personal feeling is that they work best with a flexible spending account.

You will see them advertised again in the next FEHBP open season. But they are rather tricky creatures, so read the literature, ask a lot of questions, check with your doctor for his view, and only then make a decision on HSAs.

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Washington: Thanks to all for your answers on the nonstop throat-clearing last week. I wish it were allergies, but this has gone on for several months.

Stephen Barr: Best of luck!

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Peace Corps: Insofar as the HIV-positive volunteer is concerned, a tenet of operating a Peace Corps operation in the country is that we must follow local laws. The local law in Ukraine is that the volunteer was no longer eligible to stay. Should the Peace Corps have placed the volunteer in another country where he would be welcome according to local laws? Perhaps ... but Peace Corps is not set up like the State Department's bid process.

The volunteer contracted HIV, an absolute pity and shame. Medical accommodation is a priority for Peace Corps, and we strive to provide a Western level of care in developing countries, but it's simply too difficult to support the medical needs of a HIV-positive individual given the circumstances.

Stephen Barr: This is a complex area, and I'm not an expert. But the State Department recently announced it would consider supporting the medical needs of HIV-positive diplomats on a case by case basis because of advancements in treatment and medication. Hopefully, we'll have an announcement from the Peace Corps that clarifies the agency's rules and procedures for the volunteers.

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Eldersburg, Md.: What happened to the proposal to have a two-person -- husband/wife (no dependents) -- health benefit rate for federal employees? We are being penalized unfairly under a family rate.

Stephen Barr: There's been no movement, and Congress does not seem interested in mandating a new premium structure. Many retirees are interested in two-person coverage, as you probably know.

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

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