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Federal Diary Live: Steve Barr

Steve Barr/Federal Diary
Steve Barr
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Post Series: Empty Pipeline: The Federal Employment Crisis
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Federal Diary
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Wednesday, May 10, 2000; Noon EDT

Thousands of federal employees are reaching retirement age in the next few years, but is the government ready to replace them? A Post series beginning Sunday explores the impending brain drain and the federal government's difficulty in hiring and keeping the best people on the job.

Stephen Barr, author of the leadoff story in the series, will take over The Post's Federal Diary column on May 14, succeeding Mike Causey. Barr discussed the personnel challenges facing the federal government on Wednesday, May 10. The transcript follows:

Steve Barr: Welcome to this on-line discussion. The Post has asked me to start writing the Federal Diary column, starting Sunday. I hope we can use washingtonpost.com as a way to swap ideas and improve our coverage of issues important to our readers, particularly those in the federal community. So let's go to our first question. Thanks for writing in.

Norfolk, Va.: I find the series a little ironic in light of the Navy's proposed N/MCI (Navy/Marine Corps Intranet) which endeavors to contract out the entire Information Technology segment of civil service support for the Navy. What do you know about this proposal? I understand that an amendment to a defense appropriations bill was supposed to be introduced last week that would delay this proposal for two years for further study, but I don't know if this happened or what will happen next if it did.

If that amendment does not fly, the contract apparently will be awarded next month, with full implementation scheduled to be complete by the end of the next calendar year. How many civil service positions will this eliminate? (Mine will be one of them.)

Steve Barr: I'm afraid there's not yet much information available on how the N/MCI contract will shake out. House appropriators will meet either today or tomorrow to discuss this issue, and the Navy expects Congress to attach some language to legislation. If the past is a guide, Congress will ask the Navy to conduct some studies or analyses before the contract starts up. But the Pentagon brass plans to move ahead and award the contract next month.

Undoubtedly this contract will cause some heavy seas in the Navy IT community – about 200,000 employees. But there are no official estimates of how many people will be asked to transfer jobs or take retraining courses for other positions. The Navy sees this project as a streamlining – not a downsizing – initiative and hopes to transfer or retrain most folks. Employees also will have the right of first refusal – in other words, the contractor will be asked to pick up employees if they are qualified and do not want to transfer or undergo retraining.

Hope this helps.

Tomah, Wis.: How does the federal government expect to fill the vacant "pipeline" positions with fresh, young, educated, and willing civil servants when the largest attraction to civil service (job security) no longer exists? If the government can't compete with private industry in attracting new employees because of pay and benefits discrepancies, who are they trying to convince that contractors are doing the work we use to do for less cost to the taxpayer?

Steve Barr: A number of agency personnel directors are trying to figure out the answer to your question. One of the answers may be in educating would-be job applicants about the benefits of a family-friendly workplace: flexible work schedules, vacation and leave hours, health care benefits and a stable retirement program. Because of budget cuts and downsizing over the last seven years, numerous agencies appear rusty at recruitment. Some agencies will now go through "right sizing" where they sort out getting the right people in the right jobs in the right places. That effort may change perceptions about job security.

Buffalo, N.Y.: Do you see the federal government ever closing the private/federal pay gap?

Steve Barr: The political winds always seem to make it difficult for candid discussions on where federal pay should be set. Congress launched an effort several years ago, through the work of Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and others, but the Clinton administration rejected the methodology used to close the so-called "pay gap." But I think pressures are building for improvement. Judges and senior career executives argue they need substantial pay increases to keep pace with private-sector competition. Rank-and-file employees, particularly those with computer and other hard-to-get skills, contend their pay is not keeping up with an ever-increasing workload. The younger workers, covered by a more portable pension plan, may decide to leave.

The administration has started a major review of compensation issues, but it appears at least a year or two away from making recommendations.

Vienna, Va.: I read with great interest your Sunday article which described the Federal personnel crisis, and mentioned several potential remedies currently under consideration by OPM and the Clinton administration. As a current presidential management intern (PMI), I find it particularly interesting that OPM is considering, "a two-year internship program aimed at attracting young people." Would this program be separate and different from the current PMI program or is OPM considering an expansion?

Also, I am interested in any additional detail you could provide on proposals to "help new employees pay student loans." Any chance that this would be linked to PMI hiring? I am quite certain that such a benefit would attract many more talented but debt-ridden graduate students to the program.

Steve Barr: Yes, the program under consideration would be separate from PMI. It appears aimed at setting up a new entry point for job applicants interested in a government career. A person successfully completing the internship could move into a regular, full-time job after two years.

Don't know if help with student loans would be tied to PMI positions. Current law allows for government agencies to offer loan repayment assistance, but few have set up programs because most agencies have been strapped for the cash. But OPM and the White House are looking into this, since it would be an effective way to attract college graduates.

Stevensville, Md.: I liked your article. But...
The paragraph which says both:
The government has been out maneuvered....
Few Program Officials or Branch Chiefs have been recruiting......

Seems like such incredible nonsense! Have you never heard of Congressman Tom Delay or Sen. Domenici? I do not know of a single branch of government that has been allowed to replace key people... it is rare even in the NIH. It seems to me that the only outmaneuvering was accomplished by electing hostile, aggressive, fist-faced, business owners like Delay and Kerry to shutter the government employment windows. What a goofy take to blame this on government bureaucrats. Totally uncalled for.

Steve Barr: A point worth noting. Congress often gives agencies conflicting missions or duties, or divides programs among many agencies, creating duplication and overlaps. When budgets get cut, among the first items tossed are recruiting and staff training programs. But long-time federal watchers argue that agency leaders and program staffs have to overcome such barriers, petition OPM and OMB for help, and find solutions to this potential talent gap.

Arlington, Va.: I read with interest the first of six articles ("Empty Pipeline"), and – although I agreed with the article – was a bit concerned that the Presidential Management Intern Program was not mentioned. I'll readily admit my bias – the PMI program was the means by which I entered federal service almost six years ago. But this is a program that has existed for over 20 years with the very purpose of recruiting future managers/leaders into government – and has done so successfully. It deserves some play in this discussion.

Steve Barr: I'll try to write about the PMI program in a future column. Although it has proved to be a tremendous success in helping the government recruit talented and bright individuals, many with advanced degrees, the numbers are relatively small when compared against the many, many jobs that need filling in the government.

Washington, D.C.: Why is the government so behind the times on IT salary levels for people with degrees in IT? Why in the world do they think that someone with a hot degree will come to work for 27K when they can easily get 35/40 and stock options?

Also, if someone has experience with computers, even has designed Web pages and been a network administrator, it does not count with the federal government unless it was done as a computer specialist. Forget the experience, it has to have the right job title. Why does OPM make it so difficult to switch series, if they desire the people in IT they are there? But they do not have the right title, so it does not count.

Steve Barr: Excellent question. It seems to take the government, as a whole, a long time to turn around when the market suddenly moves. OPM has set up a pilot program at about a dozen agencies, including Agriculture, Defense, Labor and Treasury, to study this problem. The goal appears aimed at revamping the job classification system so that people who are qualified to do the work can actually move into the job they want, regardless of job title. In the end, this should allow the government to bring people in at higher grade levels, which will improve pay.

But this will take time. The administration will have to not only devise a plan, but sell it to employee groups, Congress and the White House budget office.

As in the past, individual agencies will have to scramble to retain their experts and figure out their own methods of hiring any replacements.

Syracuse, N.Y.: Hi Steve. Good luck with the column.

What's your take on using the "business model" as the standard for good government? I wonder what the average federal employee thinks about that also and I hope you'll consider writing about the benefits and costs inherent in such a philosophy.


Steve Barr: Thanks, I'll need some luck with the column. It seems to be one of those jobs in newspapering where the audience always knows more than the reporter.

I have mixed feelings about the business model as a standard for good government. It seems clear that taxpayers and politicians want a more efficient government that provides common-sense solutions. But the government also must treat the public in a fair and honest manner, and that often requires rules and social policy considerations that don't always square with the business model.

Dunkirk, Md.: What would the impact of an Al Gore administration be on the recruitment/promotion of new/existing government employees? Impact of a George W. Bush administration?

Steve Barr: Hard to tell. At a recent forum on Capitol Hill, the Gore and Bush aides speaking seemed to be taking the same approach toward federal management issues. Both stressed the importance of "performance" and obtaining "results" and both used the rhetoric to suggest front-line employees need more pay and power. But I don't think they have thought through all the implications of retirements, retentions and recruitments. They will get help, though. The General Accounting Office is conducting studies and preparing recommendations, which could arrive in time for the next presidential transition.

Chicago, Ill.: Steve:
Congrats on your new assignment! Will you be focusing on the serious threat that indiscriminate privatization is posing to the effective delivery of government services?

Steve Barr: I'll try. As you know, this is a most contentious issue, buried in arcane regulations, agency policies and congressional and union politics. If anyone spots a good case study, please let me know.

Bethesda, Md.: Is OPM still considering a special rate pay for computer specialists? If so, when might we (as underpaid techies) expect to see this rate increase?

Steve Barr: Yes, this is another IT arena that OPM is studying. I'm told the project underway is aimed at not only the current problem – shortages across the board – but at geographic areas, such as Houston, home to NASA, federal contractors and one of the world's largest computer companies. It seems OPM is moving toward establishing special pay rates, but I can't predict when.

Arlington, Va.: How receptive do you think the Congress has been to the idea of workforce planning, supposedly a method of assisting in relieving the brain drain? By the way, around 1994, most agencies had a significant loss of historic memory because of untargeted early outs so maybe nothing needs to be done.

Steve Barr: Like many important parts of the federal arena, the notion of a protracted discussion of workforce planning makes eyes glaze over on the Hill. But David Walker, the comptroller general and head of GAO, is worried about the loss of institutional memory in the government and will be urging members of Congress to study solutions. The various downsizing initiatives did hurt, but most agency officials are now working to offset any losses if a big retirement wave hits between now and 2004.

Washington, D.C.: Since all new government workers are placed under FERS, do you think this portable retirement system will make it more difficult for the government to retain workers?

Steve Barr: I subscribe to the notion that talented employees with sought-after skills and experience will be more likely to leave the government because FERS does not penalize mobility as much as CSRS does. But we may find the government moving toward an "in and out" system, in which career employees leave the government for private sector or nonprofit opportunities, and then return a few years later to the government, enriched by their experiences and able to better promote innovation inside the government. That future, though, will require more nimble employment and program offices and more streamlined procedures, I suspect.

Washington, D.C.: I've been doing Web application development in higher education for several years and I'm somewhat interested in working for the federal government. However, at least from looking at the government's Web sites, I find it very hard to gain an understanding of the government's overall Internet development strategy. Is there an agency or office that plans government technology development, specifically Internet and web development? Or some other way to find out more? As an IT professional, I'm obviously very hesitant to start working for an employer that doesn't seem to have much of a plan.

Steve Barr: This goes back to a key finding in our reporting this week. A number of administration officials and their critics agree that agencies must do a better job of explaining their goals and strategies. For starters, try contacting the leaders of the Chief Information Officer Council (they are on the web) or asking the General Services Administration, which has long experience in Web matters, for assistance. GSA public affairs can be reached at (202) 501-1231.

Arlington, Va.: Do you see a potential positive contribution to the metro area from the expected numbers of early-out and regular federal retirees? In other words, do you see them using their retirement income to continue to support themselves while they contribute their talents and experience in continued service as volunteers to schools, community and youth?

Steve Barr: Indeed. The Washington area benefits almost every day from active duty and retired workers who volunteer at schools, recreation centers and nonprofits. Many retirees have something most of us want but can't obtain – time.

Steve Barr: I'm sorry I did not get to all your questions. But we've run out of time. Join us again next Wednesday. And don't forget to send in ideas for the column. Thanks again.

washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today. We read all of your questions, even if we didn't get the chance to answer them. Tune in with Federal Diary Live on Wednesdays at noon EDT, and we will get to as many as we can, both from live and from the mailbag, each week. Thanks.

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