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Federal Diary Live
With Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 21, 2003; Noon ET

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Sunday through Friday in the Metro section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a staff writer covering the federal bureaucracy. He takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining us today. The House and Senate are working on the fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill, and the House bill carries some far-reaching changes for Defense civilians that will likely prompt a vigorous debate over the next few weeks. The Bush administration appears to be polishing up new A-76 rules to streamline the process for outsourcing decisions. So, as usual, we are in slow but continuous movement. Now, on to your comments, suggestions and questions.

Milwaukee, Wis.: Do you see any way to slow or stop the crush to privatize federal jobs? The Bush Administration no longer cares about efficiency or cost savings, just their blind devotion to eliminating the federal government and its employees. Pretty soon the only people left that are actually government employees will be political appointees (is it just me, or do there seem to be more of them under this president?)

Stephen Barr: Good morning, Milwaukee! You're right--it is hard to see how the tide can be turned on contracting out of federal work. Assuming these things run in cycles, I expect one day we'll have a big contracting scandal, the public will notice how little oversight and understanding we have of the process, and the government will react and tighten up. As an outsider, I'm frustrated by this debate because it seems we have so few "facts" that are accepted by all sides.

As for political appointees, not sure Bush II has more of them than Clinton-Gore. You may be seeing the continuing trend of political jobs showing up deeper and deeper in organizations. Many top administrative and management jobs once performed by career employees have been converted to political jobs.

Silver Spring, Md.: With the Bush administration pushing for privatization, when should we expect, and should we expect, to hear about buyouts and early outs? Do you expect any other types of incentives to leave the government? Thank you!

washingtonpost.com: Bush's Plans for More Privatization Prompt Rally in Opposition (Post, May 21)

Stephen Barr: Given the tight budgets at some agencies, I tend to think employees will see early retirement offered before any talk of buyouts. Interestingly, the Defense Department bill up on Capitol Hill would let the Pentagon bring back retirees with no offsets to their pay. This is a difficult time to gaze into the crystal ball. Almost all agencies expect to see a wave of retirements over the next few years, but the time people choose to leave may be influenced by the overall economy or by how much pressure to outsource work has built up in their agencies.

Fairfax, Va.: Regarding A-76 changes:

Has there been any monitoring of the impact of past and present outsourcing actions? In particular, have there been lost jobs or positions replaced by outsourcing contracts? How many current federal employees are actually competing for outsourced work in attempts to keep their positions?

Stephen Barr: Good questions, but I don't have good answers. There is little monitoring of outsourcing. While agencies track individual contracts, I've seen no authoritative data on the impact of outsourcing, the kinds of jobs turned over to the private sector, the number of employees doing the work or how much they are paid. I don't think we know much about how the government determines an appropriate profit for each contractor.

But federal jobs are lost to contracting--that's been a trend at the Defense Department for years. I've not handle on how many current employees face competitions, but studies are underway in almost all large agencies. For example, the National Park Service is looking at the conversion of about 1,700 jobs by the end of fiscal 2004.

Arlington, Va.: At my previous agency tech support was in house government employees. It was scary since I knew more than the head of tech support for our division who was a GS-13 now 14. She was a former secretary who lateraled over to tech support. My new agency outsourced tech support and its like night and day. Database is up 98 percent of time compared to 60 percent. I don't believe there is any cost saving to government since the contractor tech support makes 25 percent more than a GS 14.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for your insight. Clearly, technology is an area where many people think contracting out is appropriate, given the pace of change in the products and services. The key to all of this is top-notch contract supervision and figuring out a common-sense approach that ensure taxpayers and the agency get the right results.

Riverdale, Md.: On one hand -- I think Americans don't really understand all the good things that government does for us -- like drug safety, roads, water. That makes Bush's Government for sale agenda easier to make political points.

On the other -- too often there are employees in our agency that really have no clue as to how they add value or worse, don't think they have to. The A-76 push might shake them out of complacency.

Stephen Barr: Well, clearly the Bush team believes that competition is good for the soul. But too much competition, or competition that is perceived as unfair, does not make for a healthy public service, I fear.

Rockville, Md.: Have a second interview this week with a private government contractor in a field I love. I am currently a Fed in a dead end, no learning curve job but it is secure (really the only thing going for it plus the bennies). Would just love to hear from anyone who has made the transition from Fed to private and get advice, insight. Thanks!

Stephen Barr: Any takers out there? Good luck with your career change!

Arlington, Va.: RE: contracting out: We have not heard a thing about privatizing our positions -- does this mean that this is probably the case? (I doubt they would privatize us; we already pay for outside consultants on occasion, and even when they agree to bill at the government rate, we still talk pretty seriously about budgets. We'd all be really expensive.)

Stephen Barr: You make a good point. Much of the current competitive sourcing is hit-or-miss in the agencies. Supposedly, they are looking at the 2000 inventory of jobs listed as commercial in nature and selecting logical jobs that can be competed for savings. Ask around and see if your jobs are on one of the lists of so-called commercial jobs. That would give you a clue as to future possibilities.

Washington, D.C.: Is there an effort to change the definition of "inherently governmental?"

Stephen Barr: There had been some talk of changing definitions as part of the A-76 rewrite. But I think the idea has been dropped. There's widespread speculation that OMB will publish its new version in a week or two, so we'll know for sure then.

Vienna, Va.: Is there a law that prohibits a federal government employee from retiring, then immediately taking a job with a contactor to do the work he was doing before he retired?

Stephen Barr: This is beyond my expertise. Anyone know for sure?

I suspect some federal jobs come with post-employment restrictions. But there are contracting out deals where the vendor gives the displaced federal employees have the right of first bid/refusal for the jobs, so people just transfer over.

Germany: Hey Steve -- just to let you know that you have a group of fans here in Europe. Your column and the live session help us keep connected.

What do you think of the Human Capital Crisis/Non-Crisis? In the State Department everyone always rotates -- the local hires provide the continuity.

Stephen Barr: Thanks much! I'm always amazed when I receive email from Foreign Service, military and civil service employees in places far away from D.C. Almost makes me believe this Internet thing will actually work someday.....

I tend to come down on the side of crisis. We're losing a cohort of public servants who are highly dedicated (some go back to JFK and LBJ days)through retirements, we're having a hard time recruiting the right kind of college students into public service, and we're confused about how much stability we want in the government. Many private-sector companies like to move employees around as a way to keep them fresh and get new eyes to tackle old problems. But I tend to think the government is a beast that works well with continuity and stability in the job ranks, and I also think it needs to be revitalized on a regular basis. Seems like we are still searching for the right balance.

Washington, D.C.: TO the person in the dead end job -- the need to learn, explore, innovate is important. My first fed job was a dead end place -- everyone had been there for years and weren't going anywhere for years. I left for the private sector then came back to another agency where the work culture was a lot more healthy.

Stephen Barr: Thanks. Good point to remember--you can leave federal service and return the wiser.

New York, N.Y.: I and some of my co-workers noticed that our position within our agency in Washington and other regions is a GS 13 or 14. Most in our region are at a GS 12. Is location the determining factor in the promotion potential of a position?

Stephen Barr: It seems to be that location should not be a factor in promotion potential, unless the work is so specialized that the agency has no need to transfer knowledge elsewhere. In general, I think we have higher graded jobs in D.C. because this is the headquarters crowd.

Portland, Ore.: Stephen, what is the latest on the projected civilian pay raise for 2004? Is there an effort underway to tie the raise once again to the military increase or has pay reform superceded this pattern?

Stephen Barr: President Bush has recommended a 2 percent across-the-board raise for civil service employees. He also has tossed in a $500 million fund so that agencies can give a higher base pay raise to their best workers. Most Democrats and some Republicans seem skeptical of the proposal for the fund, since it seems in lieu of a higher raise, probably through pay parity. There will be a push for parity again this year (the military is on track to get an average 4.1 percent raise). But it may take all year to reach a deal on what the 2004 pay raise will be.

Colorado Springs, Colo.: What is the probability that the GS system will be reformed for FY04?

Stephen Barr: Not likely, for the government as a whole. But I do expect the Defense Department to win the right to begin pay banding and a pay-for-performance system. Right now, Congress seems to be only concerned with how to ensure that employees are treated fairly under the new system and have a way to appeal adverse decisions. We'll likely see the new Department of Homeland Security move into pay banding next year, with performance as a component. More than likely, these changes will be phased in over several years.

Colorado Springs, Colo.: If we do move to a pay band system, what will the pay bands be?

Stephen Barr: We don't know what the new systems will look like.

The Pentagon has a "best practices" pay banding system that has grown out of their demonstration projects. It breaks employees into five career groups, with each career group falling into four bands (or salary ranges.) For example, people clustered under the umbrella of "professional and administrative management" would be arranged this way:
Level 1 (GS-5 through 11); Level 2 (GS-12 and 13); Level 3 (GS-14 and 15) and Level 4 (above GS-15). In such levels, managers could increase a person's pay without giving them a promotion or transferring them to a new job, I assume.

1st St. NE, Washington, D.C.: Stephen,

I'm a relatively young federal employee and thinking about making a career here. But I am rather confused about retirement. Since I would only be in my mid-40's after 20, years, I'm having trouble finding information for people in my situation. OPM seems to devote itself to those closer to retirement or those retiring at a more traditional age. Any thoughts?

Stephen Barr: Sounds like you would be covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System. FERS is built around a pension, Social Security and your TSP savings. So think of yourself more like a private-sector worker: plan on working until at least 62 or 65, or leaving the government in middle age to start a second career. As best I can tell, OPM doesn't provide retirement advice. Given your youthful age, I would look for a financial planner to walk through possible scenarios.

Arlington, Va.: This is in response to Rockville regarding transition from the government to the private sector. I retired 5 years ago and have been working in the private sector ever since. I have only received two raises because of the condition of the economy. I also received a pay cut last year when the firm I am working for was purchased by a larger one. I have 5 fewer days of leave, but I can purchase company stock at a discount. There is no security like there is with a federal job. Also, if you wish to have a nice-sized raise each year plus within-grade increases, it probably would be better to stay with the federal government.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for the plain English response!

Vienna, Va.: It was mentioned that a government employee could just transfer over to the contractor who takes over the jobs, however, doesn't the contractor then lose all government benefits. The individual would have to take whatever benefits the new company offers. Right

Stephen Barr: Yes, you typically lose your federal benefits in those situations.

Washington, D.C.: Well -- I think the way the FS service works is good. People have to keep learning.

Someone can't just sit on a job for years and use it to hold everyone hostage because they think the Internet is a toy -- or using e-tickets is suspicious.

The down side is some forget that many good people who work for the U.S. government aren't Americans. Their contributions tend to get diminished.

Stephen Barr: Well said. Thanks.

Regional vs. Headquarters Grades: The Headquarters grades tend to be higher because they can claim for national influence or responsibility while the regional people are limited in their geographic influence.

Stephen Barr: To the point. Thanks.

Fairfax, Va.: Steve, your advice to the person leaving Federal service and coming back "wiser" may not also be coming back "poorer." Unfortunately, the present laws don't allow a CSRS person to leave Federal service, come back, and keep a CSRS retirement system -- he/she is forced, upon coming back, to take the less generous FERS system. This, in my opinion, is a law that needs changing, but for now we are stuck with it.

Stephen Barr: A good reminder. Thank you.

Washington, D.C.: Well wouldn't contract supervision be same as job supervision? No one's happy with the current performance appraisal process. Are we just swapping one problem for another?

Stephen Barr: In some ways, yes. But I tend to think the challenges of monitoring contractors is more difficult.

Arlington, Va.: I keep seeing OPM pushing telework, but at the same time, I'm not convinced that they are pushing agencies hard enough to keep it viable. From personal experience, it seems that agencies are making it harder than before. Do you have any sense of the tension between agencies and OPM?

Stephen Barr: OPM Director Kay Coles James is pushing telework, but she faces a lot of skepticism out in the agencies. Rather than tension, I think most Bush administration political appointees are just ignoring telework as a workforce option. However, there are strong pockets of teleworking, such as the Patent and Trademark Office, and I suspect some agencies will move toward telecommuting only when they can clearly see it makes sense to get the work done that way.

Washington, D.C.: Good point but not valid -- I came in under FERS so was able to jump. Bottom line -- folks have to decide are they at work to contribute to a greater good or tied down by financial addictions? Your response was good.

Stephen Barr: Thanks.

Gaithersburg, Md.: I would love to be in public service and work for the government, and I have tons of great skills! However, the hiring process is so difficult that I gave up trying. I now work for a quasi-governmental organization -- good benefits and job security -- but I don't feel like I'm contributing the way that I would in a federal government job.

Stephen Barr: The hiring process needs much improvement and agencies lose good applicants every day out of frustration. OPM is supposed to be addressing this issue.

I've always found that persistence pays off, though. So don't give up. Keep trying!

Arlington, Va.: In Monday's business section there was an article on security clearances and jobs. The Defense Security Service provide averages of how many days it takes them to close each type of investigation. The averages they provided are figments of someone's imagination since myself and many of my coworker's have cases that have been pending at DSS for more than 2 years on a number of individuals.

A DOD adjudicator

washingtonpost.com: More Jobs Than Security Clearances (Post, May 19)

Stephen Barr: Good point. I hear from folks on a regular basis who are stuck in limbo waiting for a clearance. Clearly, TSA has run into some problems with background checks, a variation on this theme. OPM is picking up about 1,800 background investigators from Defense. Will that make a difference?

Clinton, Md.: Regarding A-76,

Do you know what federal skill sets are being looked at for privatization? Specifically, are "Personnel Specialist" in danger of losing out to human resource companies?

I've been told, federal employees who loss their job to privatization, usually are placed somewhere else in the agency. Do you know if this is true?

Stephen Barr: Yes, personnel folks can be outsourced. TSA, for example, contracts for almost all of its personnel and payroll functions.

As a general rule, agencies try to place people in other jobs in their agencies or help them find work elsewhere in the government. But it can be tedious and full of uncertainty.

Vienna, Va.: While outsourcing is a distinct possibility in many areas, the main thing that will work against it is that many government jobs are so complex and require so much training, concentration, and experience that many private firms simply cannot just "step in" and take it over, just like that. I know -- it takes 5-7 years to really get proficient at my job, and while we keep hearing "contracting out," the truth is that almost no private firm could handle it.

Stephen Barr: A good point. Thanks.

Alexandria, Va.: I'm wondering if Bush fails to win the '04 election, will the implementation of A76 at least slow down? Seems that during the Clinton years, very little emphasis was put on the Plan.

Stephen Barr: I don't know. My guess is that a change of party will not make much difference over the long haul. The Clinton administration regularly turned federal work over to contractors--they just didn't talk it up as much and worked a bit harder to be more sensitive to employee and union concerns.

Once again, I've run out of time. Thanks to all of you for participating and to all of you who take the time to read this transcript. We're back at noon next Wednesday. See you then!

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