Record blizzard shuts down the government

 John Berry, director Office of Personnel Management
John Berry, director Office of Personnel Management (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

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John Berry
Director, Office of Personnel Management
Thursday, February 11, 2010; 11:00 AM

"...three straight days of [government] closings and Friday's half day will cost taxpayers an estimated $350 million in lost productivity by federal employees," reports Washington Post Federal Eye reporter/blogger Ed O'Keefe. The figure is based on an estimate calculated by career OPM employees.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the person who makes the call as to whether federal government employees report to work or not was online Thursday, Feb. 11, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the effects of closing the government during the Blizzard of 2010 and whether further closings may occur.

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John Berry: Good morning, John Berry, it's an honor to be with you all here today on Washington Post. Look foward to your questions.

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Washington, D.C.: 2 questions:

1) Will the federal government be open on friday?

2) Why in the world can a decision not be made earlier in the day? Most of us could predict the decisions for most of the past 4 days, without waiting til 7 p.m. every day.

John Berry: We have scheduled a Council of Government call for 6 p.m this evening where we will ge th3e most information for tomorrow.

We've already moved it (COG call) from 4 a.m. to 6 p.m. We're making it alreadyd the night before. We've attempted to provide a quicker decision by holding the calls at 6 p.m. rather than 4 a.m. and any eralier than that the information is not as accurate as necessary.

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Snowbound in Alexandria, Va.: How is the productivity cost calculated? Does OPM have this information on their website? If not, can it be published online?

John Berry: The number that is used currently is woefully out of date and does not reflect emergency personnel, essential personnel, or teleworking wmployees and therefor overstates cost of government closure. When we are clear of the storm we will be updating this calculation and willc certainly put that on our Web site for both comments and distrubution.

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Rockville, Md.: I would have telecommuted the past four days and got lots of work done but my agency requires that you work for a full year before you can telecommute. In my last position in state government, I telecommuted almost exclusively for three years. Why the arbitrary one year requirement? (my agency is BPHC in HHS).

John Berry: We, OPM, has no one-year requirement and I hope that after this experience your agency will appreciate the importance value, productivity allowing as many workers as possible to telework without arbitrary restrictions such as a one-year delay.

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Arlington, Va.: Who actually makes the decision to close? Is it a committee, or does the buck stop somewhere?

John Berry: The buck stops with me I am advised by the Council of Governmemts that convenes a conference call with over 100 experts from around the region that includes the National Weather Service, all state and county governments, all transportation officials, police, mass transit, commuter rail and bus services, power companies and city officials. They give me the most accurate, up to date information. I then discuss their information with my senior staff at OPM, looking at history and precedents and then I make the call.

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Annapolis, Md.: Mr. Berry I want to commend you decision to allow federal workers to stay home over the duration of the two storms. You can make up for lost time but not lost lives.

How does Metro closing above ground affect your decsion on the status of the federal government?

John Berry: It is one of the important factors but not the only factor. It definitely impacts the ability for people to commute and so it is certainly part of the decision equation.

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John Berry: Thanks for your kind words.

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Anonymous: Is President Obama consulted when you make the decision to close the government?

John Berry: No.

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Trevor, Wisc.: Were employees encouraged to take their computers home so they could telework?

John Berry: Yes, and in fact, one of the lessons learned from the snowstorm is that we need to encourage agencies to acquire more portable, modern computers that will make it easier and more secure to work from home.

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Annapolis, Md.: Will the federal government take away the President's Day holiday on Monday due to this week's closings?

John Berry: No.

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Manassas, Va.: Isn't it true that with the vast majority of Federal employees having access to their email, conference calls and such that many Federal workers are still working despite the shutdown...I know I am! Perhaps it would be helpful if an estimate of how much money is saved in productivity was also shown so that the American public could see that despite the shutdown there are many, many dedicated Federal workers still working!

John Berry: Great point. Just as mentioned earlier, we will be updating that calculation to reflect modern reality.

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Fairfax, Va.: If Metro is operating at full capacity by OOB on Friday, will we (Federal Workers) be going back tomorrow.

John Berry: We will make that decision at 6:00.

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Dallas, Tex.: How does the fact that many federal employees are working remotely (e.g. from home, telework/flexiplace)figure into your calculation that the government has lost $350 million in productivity?

John Berry: Currently it doesn't, which is why we need to update this formula. The current calculation is a straight forward daily payroll cost of 270,000 employees. So as you can see, this calculation has many weaknesses and must be updated.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Mr Berry,

Does the inflexibility of civilian position descriptions, in your opinion, favor a more stable government bureaucracy or impair it?

That is, compared to the classification and distribution of military personnel assigned strictly on the basis of their rate/rating.

Which is more efficent? and more effective?

John Berry: It is my opinion that our current classification model is overly constrictive and could use refreshing. I am supportive of broadening classification to allow greater flexibility for employees to move both within and between federal agencies.

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Arlington, Va.: What are the most important factors in the decision to close down for a day?

John Berry: There are two: Our employees' and the public's safety and maintaining government operations to the maximum extent possible. The balance always goes to safety.

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Washington, D.C.: How does it feel to be the man who decides whether 270,000 federal workers have to set the alarm or sleep in?

John Berry: It is a decision that will never make everyone happy so I always go back to what is best for our employees' safety as well as maintaining government operations for the taxpayer.

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John Berry: For individual job questions you may have you can e-mail me at director.berry@opm.gov.

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Detroit, Mich.: It's interesting to learn more about how the call to close the government is made in your office. Would your office (and thus you) also make the call for federal offices in other cities or is that role delegated to someone local?

John Berry: Great question. It is delegated to local groups called the Federal Executive Boards and each major city has one. The represent the federal agencies in those areas and they are empowered to make the call in those areas.

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Germantown, Md.: As in 1955, will furloughs be put in place to cover the costs of the government shut down during the snowstorm?

John Berry: No.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think that it is out of the question that federal workers in DC will work on Monday, the President's day holiday?

John Berry: The holiday will go forward as planned.

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SW DC: I am receiving the OPM Status Alerts the next day. Is there a problem with your server or ours?

John Berry: Earlier in the week our servers crashed due to both the storm and the heavy load. Our staff has used cloud computing to respond and we have not failed since, though demand has at times exceeded two million hits an hour.

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Tysons Corner, Va.: When the government is closed, do employees have access to the buildings (as they do on the weekends) so that they can pick stuff up to work on over the weekend? While I admittedly have enjoyed the past few days, I know that it means late nights next week.

John Berry: They need to check with their agency. Each agency has different security rules so before you try to come in please check with your local agency to make sure you have access.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Why does OPM's guidance state that the D.C. metro area only includes agencies inside the Beltway, when many surrounding counties are otherwise considered?

John Berry: We have formal agreements inside the Beltway by tradition that surrounding counties that touch the District agree to abide by this decision to the extent possible.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Berry,

When the federal government is closed, does that apply to all employees of the federal government, regardless of where they are located (in D.C. area or another state)?

John Berry: It only applies to D.C. and the adjacent counties and to non-emergency/essential employees.

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New Jersey: What is the annual payroll dollar amount for the 270,000 federal employees?

John Berry: The daily cost is $102 million.

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Non-Fed Worker: What lessons have you learned from this recent storm? During your short tenure I can imagine you've been challenged more than your entire Fed career.

John Berry: Lessons learned are first, telework is an extremely powerful tool to allow continuity of operations. Thirty percent of two agencies' data that I have were able to telework during the storm. We could easily double that, hopefully by the next storm.

The second lesson is how critical it is during a crisis to have good communications between all levels of government and first responders. It allows for assets to be moved quickly to where they are most needed.

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Rockville, Md.: Before I retired a few years ago, as an employee of a federal government contract I was told our contract prohibited me from working at home via computer. If federal employees were allowed to work remotely, are contractor employees still prohibited from working remotely?

John Berry: I think in this day and age such prohibitions are antiquated and need to be removed.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Mr. Berry. Seeing the impact of the recent weather, do you support a the Telework Enhancement act of 2009 which would remove the mandatory 1 hour OPM requirement therefore allowing for a nationwide workforce?

John Berry: I am supportive of all efforts to enhance teleworking and make it easier for employees to do so.

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Arlington, Va.: If you had put in for previously scheduled time off this week what happens? Since the government is closed, how can it count as vacation time? Does OPM have a ruling on this or does it vary between agencies?

John Berry: There is a ruling that you can review on our Web site (www.opm.gov).

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Alexandria, Va.: 1. Will there be any requirement for Federal employees to "make up" any of the excused days during the past week?

2. Many agencies/managers are resisting the need to telework. Will OPM make telework a requirement in adverse weather situations?

Thank you for considering safety of the workforce. The cost of human lives cannot easily be quantified.

John Berry: No to the first question, however, it is expected that the work lost will be made up by people working harder in the days ahead as we return to catch up on the backlog that might have occurred due to the storm.

On the second issue, we are exploring all options to enhance the government's teleworking capability.

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Washingtonian: Do you have any advice for the region's snow emergency crews and their reaction to clearing roads, sidewalks and getting the city up and running again?

John Berry: This storm shows that the region's capability to manage large snowstorms has increased dramatically. The last storm of this size was in '96. Had we not been hit with yesterday's storm we would have opened the government yesterday. This would have been two days earlier than '96 and this storm had much more snow. So it is clear that both equipment and staffing have improved since then.

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Falls Church, Va.: Does your cost estimate include military stationed in the covered area or just civilian employees?

John Berry: Only civilians.

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Lanham, Md.: Many federal workers live in the suburbs of D.C. where snow plows have not cleared subdivisions streets. Will this be a factor you will consider during today's 6:00 p.m. meeting?

John Berry: Yes and even if we are open tomorrow we would allow for unscheduled leave to give maximum flexibility to individual circumstances such as yours.

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Metro D.C.: Are you at the office or teleworking today?

John Berry: I am teleworking this morning this morning and will be at the office at 1:00. I have been back and forth. Yesterday I teleworked. Tuesday I was in the office. So it has been a mix.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How much does telework mitigate the cost of closing the federal government?

John Berry: It clearly saves the government money and productivity and we must factor that in to a new equation of the cost of closure.

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John Berry: It's been great chatting with you this morning and I hope you will stay safe today as you dig out from Snowmageddon 2.0.

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