Federal Diary Live

Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, May 14, 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.


Stephen Barr: Thank you for joining this discussion today. For those of you interested in pay reform and related issues, it's worth some of your time to check out the 2008 survey results of the Senior Executive Service, where it appears a substantial number of federal executives are puzzled by how their pay raises and bonuses are determined. The survey is on the Office of Personnel Management Web site.

With that, let's go to today's questions and comments. Thanks again for joining us!


Centreville, Va.: Submitting in advance, as I'll be stuck in a briefing when you lovely folks are live...

I travel frequently on government business; I'm in one of the agencies stuck with Omega Travel for booking flights. (Their online booking system is spectacularly poorly designed, and their rules about fees and contract carriers, combined with the agency's rules about using them, amount to what could be considered racketeering -- but I digress...) Office lore indicates that government travelers on full-fare/fully refundable tickets on United Airlines are eligible for a free upgrade to "Economy Plus" seating. Omega used to do this automatically when booking by phone, but we're not permitted to do phone booking, only online booking now -- which only allows purchased upgrades to "Economy Plus." I've called United's customer service directly, where I was informed that this only can be done in-person by a desk agent at the airport at time of check-in. So this is what I've been doing -- long lines on a regular basis.

I was informed by a United gate agent that the government-fare ticket ("Y-Class," I believe) is excluded from that courtesy upgrade, and was cut from that program years ago -- yet I've been doing this for every flight I can for the past several years.

What gives? Any advice on the (few) perks for government travelers, and how to get the most out of those "agency lore" anecdotes? Is there a place to look up "insider" info like this -- services you have to know about to request them?

Thanks for your chats and columns -- my dad retired earlier this month after 40 years and 8 weeks as a fed (civilian with the Air Force), and his advice to start keeping track of "Barr's Wisdom" as soon as I started my federal career (six years now!) was right on the money!

Stephen Barr: Well, Centreville, your travel situation is something outside my zone. If others do not offer advice today, you might try to check in with the GSA travel policy folks and see what they have to say.

And thanks for the kind words -- although any wisdom grows from the fine help I receive from folks in the federal community!


Rockville, Md.: Is there any effort being made at all -- on Capitol Hill or elsewhere -- to address the salary cap that will prevent many GS-15's in several cities from receiving even a cost of living pay increase next year? With each passing year, this situation will affect an increasing number of employees, as it has in the San Francisco area. Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Not that I have heard about. Hopefully, GS-15s and SESers will be sharing their concerns about pay caps with members of Congress, who will have to amend some laws.


Chesapeake Beach, Md.: The storm Sunday night and Monday morning is just the latest instance of a storm that clobbers the eastern part of the D.C. area pretty heavily, but doesn't cause the D.C. government to implement unscheduled leave, let alone a delay or closing. (Don't get me started on the morning I woke up to six inches of snow on my doorstep, but the federal government was still on "open" status.)

How does the federal government make a decision whether to change the D.C. operating status from "open," and specifically, what locations do they look at when making their decision?

I'd like to trust that they're treating the weather in Prince George's, Anne Arundel, and the three Southern Maryland counties on a par with Fairfax, Montgomery, Loudoun, Prince William and whatnot, but it's getting increasingly hard to believe.

Stephen Barr: The size of the Washington commuting area and the quirky nature of mid-Atlantic weather makes it difficult to please all commuters, for sure. OPM officials and state transportation officials usually communicate with one another in the early morning hours, and OPM tries to get a handle on the status of roads, trains, etc., in the far parts of our region. I'll try to find a link that explains the OPM process for reaching decisions.


washingtonpost.com: Federal Diary Live with OPM's Susan Bryant (Feb. 20, 2008)

Stephen Barr: Here you go; this recent discussion hopefully will give you some insights.


Washington: Wondered if you might suggest something. Some people I work with seem to not want to retire, even with 45 years in -- not because they want to stay, but because they don't trust what the government tells them they will get in retirement. Will the OMB program RetireEZ help with that? It's curious to me that the same government they don't trust to give them their money when they retire is the same government they count on to pay them until they die at work. Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Indeed; not sure I get the logic there, either. Yes, the new RetireEZ system will permit employees to preview more easily their retirement income and also will allow OPM to make accurate payments from the start. The system is being rolled out in phases, but I recall the goal is to get it in place by early next year, if not sooner.


Atlanta: Comment: Is your agency in a shambles like mine? With six months to go, the big shots are jumping ship, leaving the second string to try to implement all kinds of things, at the last minute that they've had eight years to do. Just in time for the next change after the election. I just can't wait. I'm so happy I could cry.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Atlanta. We are approaching a big presidential transition, and agencies are going to be somewhat disrupted as top leadership departs between now and Jan. 20. Congress also could see some turnover.

The real problem may be with agency funding. Congress may wait until after Election Day to put together the spending package for 2009, and a final deal may not come until early March. So agencies may find their interim funding measure, or continuing resolution, to be more painful than the comings and goings at the top.


Hollis Center, Maine: Do you think that the proposed reform of the FERS (paying out 15 percent of the value of all unused sick leave over 500 hours upon retirement, maximum payment $10,000) is enough money to have its desired effect? If not, what do you think might work?

Stephen Barr: Some of my readers do not think the payment is high enough, given the value of their sick leave. But it may be a good first step -- some of the management associations are eager to create an incentive because they believe it will cut down on folks taking a day here and a day there off near the ends of their careers.


Silver Spring, Md.: I don't suppose anyone has any idea what will be happening with the 2009 budget overall, and what percentage increase we feds will be working with for next year? Particularly us local feds (as I shop and donate to the Combined Federal Campaign locally).

I know, how silly of me, thinking that Congress just might be working on passing the budget instead of mucking about.

Stephen Barr: As I mentioned above, the budget process could stretch well into next year. For individual federal employees, it may be worth the wait --Congress seems inclined to provide military personnel with a 3.9 percent raise, so it may push up the federal employee raise to that level. But, as noted above, some agencies will not fare well on interim funding, and some could end up with flat budgets next year.


Virginia: What is the status of the bill for maternity leave for federal employees? Is it doomed to fail again, or is there some chance this time?

Stephen Barr: I believe sponsors are preparing to bring the bill to the House floor. Compared to previous years, it has a chance this year, and Rep. Maloney of New York seems very committed to making it happen.


Gladstone, Ore.: As a federal CSRS employee, do I have to buy back my military leave time, even though I will not have enough credits to qualify for Social Security when I turn 62? I will have enough credits to collect Social Security at the time I retire at age 66.

Stephen Barr: If you expect to qualify for Social Security, it probably is wise to make the deposit for the military service time. If you don't, the years get deducted from your CSRS formula and that pension gets recalculated when you become eligible for Social Security. This is a complex area, and you need to find a retirement counselor that can walk you through the numbers.


Silver Spring, Md.: Regarding "Something for Nothing" Chesapeake Beach, Md.'s complaint about the operating status, I don't recall that the government closed this year at all because of weather. There was liberal leave in place and I had to take a day of leave to avoid the traffic snarl and bad weather. It would behoove "Something for Nothing" to spend his time developing a better relationship with his/her supervisor to manage time-off because of bad weather, rather than writing in anonymously to newspaper reporter chats. Also look into moving to a more manageable commute. The taxpayers aren't responsible for accommodating your living in East Jabip. Can't afford it, move to Mississippi.

Stephen Barr: Yes, but our Chesapeake Beach colleague may have financial or family considerations that have locked him into a lengthy trek to the office. I'm a big fan of flexible hours -- stay late in the office some days to make up for the days when you cannot arrive on time, etc.


Washington: Atlanta is obviously talking about the Centers for Disease Control, which was ruined by Julie Gerberding -- a complete captive of the administration -- and her band of incompetent SES folks and overpaid consultant contractors. Your column has been pretty silent on the destructive aspects of administration initiatives like consolidation, which have been part of the problem at the CDC. I'm part of a huge diaspora of competent, talented CDCers who went elsewhere in and out of government.

Stephen Barr: My colleague at The Post, Rob Stein, has written about the CDC restructuring and criticism that it got drawn out too long. His articles have raised questions about the possible impacts of the CDC reorganization on public health, etc.

Because I am Washington-based, I have not had a chance to obtain a first-hand understanding of the CDC workforce, which -- at least at the start -- was split on the merits of the consolidation.

A larger point, though, is that merger and consolidation may become more common in the future in agencies, and such reorganizations probably deserve more attention than they get.


Fort Meade, Md.: Steve, for the Washington poster and RetireEZ. Folks can go here to view a short web video that will tell them all about the new features of the RetireEZ Web site. When implemented it promises to give feds one stop shopping for annuity estimates in real time, by this they mean the current rate as of the current date they access the RetireEZ program. Also Health, life insurance, thrift savings benefits etc. The video is worth watching and informative.

Stephen Barr: Thank you for passing this along!


Silver Spring: Regarding operating status on the Eastern Shore, again, the poster's personal crisis -- financial, family, etc. -- is rough, heartbreaking, etc. Weather patterns, alternate routes to work and operating status are all things that should have been taken into account prior to moving out there or taking a job with the Federal government. As Phil Connors says in "Groundhog Day," "you make choices and you live with them." How is it OPM's fault that this person was unable to negotiate unscheduled leave with his supervisor or flex-time scheduling, as you suggested?

Stephen Barr: Another factor, of course, is the continuing growth of the mid-Atlantic region. If I drive to my office, it takes 15 minutes longer than it did several years ago. One car accident, and I can spend an hour on the road. When I subway, I'm jammed in the car, and some days the Orange Line moves more slowly than others. As long as our job engine keeps cranking here, we are going to find our daily travels more challenging. So, yes, individuals and their agencies need to negotiate and adopt common-sense practices.


Beltsville, Md.: Wow, I find Silver Spring's response to Chesapeake Beach quite snotty. The place where this individual lives has nothing to do with the question other than to be sure that OPM considers all of the Maryland/District/Virginia areas in these decisions.

Personal attacks such as these on other people with legitimate questions solve nothing, and only make federal workers appear to be whiners and complainers, and hateful toward each other.

My personal feeling is that if a situation arises and I do not believe I can make it into work, I use my leave. I don't sit around waiting for someone to make that decision for me -- nor should I or any other Federal employee expect someone too.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Beltsville.


Washington: I guess this is something of a hiring question, but how much extra time gets tacked on to the standard "I can start in two weeks" answer when a secret clearance is necessary? As I understand it, the interim clearance can happen in as little as two weeks or can take a month. Can you usually start working (at least on non-sensitive stuff) before you get an interim clearance, or not?

Stephen Barr: I'm not an expert here, but I think it depends on the agency. Some places don't want you on the premises without a proper clearance; others let you in for work on non-classified stuff.

As for the extra time, it all hinges on how quickly the investigators can assemble records and get them on the desk of an adjudicator. I hear ranges of weeks to months, and it seems every other week someone has a horror story of a long wait. Best of luck!


Dale City, Va.: Can anyone explain the attraction to management of all this contracting out? We have had a lot of our IT programming outsourced in the past five years and have nothing to show for it. This process has cost the agency a fortune. I have spoken to some of those responsible for the money, and they all agree we (government) are not saving money with this disastrous approach. We need to fund staffs fully instead of wasting money trying to shrink them.

Stephen Barr: I'll give it a try. Some managers prefer contract employees because they think it is easier to ask contractors to change staffing patterns or bring in new people to meet shifting workload demands, rather than deal with the red tape that goes with reassigning and relocating permanent civil service employees. How much of this is true and how much myth, I cannot guess.

Some agencies are reassessing their reliance on contractors, and trying to strike a new balance. Cost is one of the issues involved.


Rockville, Md.: As the Metro fares in the Washington area have increased, is there any possibility that there will be an increase in the amount for the Metro fare cards for federal government employees?

Stephen Barr: I'm unsure. The transit subsidy is set by the IRS, which makes inflation-related adjustments involving tax breaks. Most agencies follow what the IRS says when it comes to providing a maximum subsidy.

Once again, we've run out of time today. Thanks for all the questions and comments -- and enjoy today's fine weather if you are reading this from a desktop in the D.C. area! See you back here at noon next Wednesday.


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