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Federal Diary
Federal Diary Live
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Live Online Transcripts

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Federal Diary Live
With Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 11, 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 of you for joining us today. Kay Coles James, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, this morning convened the first meeting of the new "chief human capital officers," a new council created by last year's homeland security law. Defense Undersecretary David Chu made the case for civil service reform at the Defense Department yesterday in a special briefing for reporters. And we're going to be short of parking spaces at the Washington Navy Yard. Change is never easy, that's for sure. With this rambling introduction, let's go right to the questions and comments. Thanks again for taking time to participate.

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Federalville, Va.: Has anyone challenged Rumsfeld concerning his statements that he has some 300,000 military in civilian positions because the military are more flexible and take orders? My husband is a career Congressional staffer and I am a senior career civilian Army employee. Both of us find this statement insulting and lacking credibility. With all the contracting out initiative over the years (A-76, DRID 20, Fair Act, Third Wave), the military has come under close scrutiny, and spaces have been coded "reviewable." At least in some sections of the Army, care has been taken to move these dwindling resources (military authorizations) away from such questionable duty to positions with unquestionable need for military presence. Someone needs to require Rumsfeld to put his data where his mouth is.

Stephen Barr: Actually, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan has asked Defense Undersecretary David Chu to provide him with the data that backs up the assertion. Chu told Levin at a recent Senate hearing that the Pentagon has compiled "inventories" showing jobs held by the military that should be performed by civilians. The skeptics among us doubt that the Rumsfeld reform proposal would steer any of these jobs into the civil service, as Chu has suggested. Instead, the skeptics claim, the jobs most likely will go to contractors, as they have in past years. I'm eager to learn more about this issue--anyone out there with a view or data?

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Arlington, Va.: Stephen, good work with that Sunday column. How fast do you think the Pentagon can make these changes -- pay bands, etc.

washingtonpost.com: Pentagon Pay Plan Has Many Moving Parts (Post, June 8)

Stephen Barr: The department has considerable experience in its "demonstration projects" with pay banding. Defense officials say they will need to train managers first, so I would predict that the Pentagon will phase in changes over a one to three years. Thanks for your kind words.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Now that the new pay for performance system is at work at Homeland Security and now DOD, I wonder when the rest of us (such as DHHS) will lose our General Schedule and our security? It seems to me that we are going back to the old spoils system before the Pendleton Act. I think that meritocracy has become a dead word.

Stephen Barr: Hard to predict. Homeland Security is still working on designing its new pay and personnel system, and Defense will clearly set a precedent for the rest of the government. Most other agencies do not have as much experience as Defense, so it could take longer than that one to three years I mentioned above for Defense. The Education Department is looking into whether it should move its staff into a demonstration project, but no decision has been made. The IRS has worked for years to set a pay-for-performance system, and to date it only affects about 2,000 senior managers. More managers will be covered in the next fiscal year. But this stuff takes time.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you really think there are 320,000 jobs at the Defense Department that can be converted from military to civil service? Or is it to contractors?

Stephen Barr: Perhaps. Perhaps not. It's all in the definition of what makes a job a military slot. Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office suggested that from 20,000 to 90,000 Defense jobs held by military personnel could be more efficiently performed by civilians. The 320,000 figure comes from a study done during the Clinton administration, officials say, but we've not seen details of how that study arrived at that figure.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think the real advantages are in pay banding? Do you think it will be fair?

Stephen Barr: The major advantage is also the major disadvantage, from the vantage point of lots of employees: Pay Banding gives managers considerable leeway in setting salaries. Defense has been pleased with its demonstration projects because it has allowed the R&D labs to bring in new hires at starting salaries higher than allowed under the General Schedule.

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Washington Navy Yard: Mr. Barr,
Your column today completely missed the point on the parking problems at the Washington Navy Yard. It is the inequitable distribution of the available parking spaces.

With 1840 spaces available (including the 440 space Lot 4 that will be closed), NAVSEA has elected to provide reserved parking for every SES/Flag officer, GS-15/O-6's and above, one directorate, approximately 300 on-site contractors, visitors, and Navy District Washington (non-NAVSEA) personnel. In addition, temporary use of the NAVSEA parking occurs for NDW special events (ceremonies, retirements, meetings, CNO use). The result of this parceling-out of the spaces is that the GS-14 and below NAVSEA employees do not have nearly enough unreserved parking to meet demand.

NAVSEA management has done little to address this problem other than suggest that more employees use public transportation or park at the Naval Station Anacostia and shuttle across the river (via hourly bus service) to get to the Navy Yard. Over 1,000 employees are currently taking public transit (not including carpools & vanpools). If people have not signed up for public transportation yet, it is because they cannot due to child care or other duties that require them to drive. I suspect that the percentage of people on the public transit subsidy is much higher among the GS-14 and below personnel, since they are the ones who do not have any reserved parking and must "hunt" for a space every morning (up to an hour on some days).

The GSA area is a wasteland right now with acres of open space. It is galling that the Navy and GSA cannot come to an agreement to allow NAVSEA to continue to use some of that open space for parking.

Stephen Barr: It does appear that rank has its privileges. Several employees told me that they do not believe the Navy Yard and GSA are really talking to each other. If that is the case, let's hope they break down any walls and look for affordable solutions for employees. Thanks for your description of the issues.

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Clifton, Va.: Steve,

It is quite a walk from the Navy Yard Metro to the Washington Navy Yard especially in bad weather. Even worse if you work at the far end in building 200. Plus the neighborhood is not great. There have been muggings, armed robberies, car jackings and rapes. The other problem is NAVSEA has a new parking garage reserved just for their employees. NAVSEA's new buildings meant loss of hundreds of spots used by non Navsea employees.

Former Navy Yard employee now working in Ballston.

washingtonpost.com: Employees at Navy Yard Feel the Loss of a Parking Lot (Post, June 11)

Stephen Barr: Yes, some employees say they feel uncomfortable walking through the neighborhood. But the District has some good ideas for redeveloping the area, so let's hope this new Transportation Department headquarters provides the critical mass needed (even though people are going to lose needed parking spaces).

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Chantilly, Va.: Mr. Barr,

I really enjoy your insights into the federal bureaucracy, especially its view of the worker bees. I have a question concerning employment with the U.S. Coast Guard, which, as I understand, has been placed under the command of the Homeland Security Department.

A friend of mine was lucky enough recently to make it through the process - submission, selection, interview, job offer from the Coast Guard. The position was advertised at the GS-13 level, with a salary range between $68,000 and $88,000. He was told that, by law, the job had to be offered at the Step 1 level, which is at the very bottom of the quoted range, despite my friend's 20-plus years of experience in the private sector.

My question is this: do the pay and personnel flexibilities granted to the Department of Homeland Security extend to the Coast Guard, and, if so, should my friend have tried to negotiate a more advantageous starting salary for this position? It seems that logic dictates the pay and personnel flexibility should work both ways in a merit-based system.

Thanks for your reply.

Sincerely,

Outside Observer
Chantilly, VA

Stephen Barr: You raise some interesting points. Unfortunately, we don't know what the Homeland Security pay system will look like or how it will operate. Coast Guard is in DHS, but it also was carved out as sort of an independent entity inside the new department. Pay banding could get at the type of issue you are describing, by allowing managers to set pay at higher levels to recognize experience and performance.

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Washington, D.C.: I saw your article yesterday and I agree that student loan debt is often a barrier for qualified workers to come to the government. After law school, I was offered a government job, but opted for private practice to gain a foothold on my massive student loans. Now, I work for a federal agency that does not offer student loan repayment and it does not seem to be an issue championed by our union. Unfortunately, the attitude of older federal employees is that either they were able to pay their loans (or somehow don't have any)and that this is not a benefit needed by the agency (also seen in one of your former online discussions). I don't think many realize how much school costs have increased over the years. They may have graduated with a loan worth half their annual salary, while today students graduate with salaries equaling half to a third of their debt. It's much different. And, younger employees do not begrudge our fellow employees benefits that we don't need, such as daycare subsidies.

How do we work to change this attitude? What did workers in other did other agencies do gain student loan repayment?

washingtonpost.com: More Agencies Are Helping Employees With Student Loans (Post, June 10)

Stephen Barr: The issue of a generation gap is crucial to resolving this, I agree. Many employees oppose paid parental leave as a possible new benefit, in part because they got along without it. And you see the same argument with student loan reimbursements. Part of the problem is few agencies have gone to Congress and asked for funding; another problem is that managers don't want to pick and choose who gets a reimbursement, since they are hung up on "internal equity" considerations. For this to work, you have to find a champion in the agency to push this new benefit. At State, top personnel officials took it on and the budget staff got funding from the Hill; at GAO, David Walker, the comptroller general, has made it happen. This is a great recruitment tool, no doubt about it.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: What is the latest news on when the new TSP software system will be in place?

Stephen Barr: We'll take your question on this, Colorado, and you are not alone in asking. Others also are seeking information today about the TSP launch of the new record-keeping system. Here's what we know: the TSP board meets on Monday, so hopefully they will make an announcement of the starting date. Previous briefings to the TSP board suggest that the new system, with daily updating of account values, will begin later this month or next month.

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Lumberton, N.C.: What is the state of the veteran's concurrent pay bill?

Stephen Barr: The Senate has approved an amendment to the fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill that would grant what is called concurrent receipt--that is, allowing disabled military retirees to draw both retired pay and VA compensation. Currently, there is an offset, or reduction, if you eligible for both. The issue now goes to a conference, where House and Senate negotiators will hammer out a final version to send to the president. There is broad support in the House for concurrent receipt, but there is also broad concern about the cost, especially at the Pentagon.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Concerning the A-76 process, has anyone ever calculated the cost of actually conducting the A-76 study? Hundred of thousands of dollars are spent on labor hours and consultants just to conduct the study. Are the "savings", if there are savings, actually worth the effort?

Stephen Barr: That's the age-old question--are the savings real. The White House says yes, looking at studies performed for the Defense Department and some conducted by the General Accounting Office. But it does seem strange to think A-76 studies produce savings, given the use of consultants to oversee the studies and the fact that most agencies divert staff from their regular jobs to work on the studies. The new A-76 rules require the agencies to start keeping track of costs and other data. Hopefully, we'll be able to make better informed judgments in a few years.

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Washington, D.C.: This outsourcing deal looks pretty serious at the National Park Service. How many other places are doing this to employees?

washingtonpost.com: Cuts Sap Morale Of Parks Employees (Post, June 10)

Stephen Barr: We don't know. That's one of the goals of the new A-76 rules--to track outsourcing projects and the number of contractors involved in them. In theory, the White House is asking every agency to look for opportunities to contract out federal work.

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Bethesda, Md.: The current administration, and in particular DHHS, is playing the head-count game again. I was just told that I will need to convert one of my staff into a contractor. This will, of course, cost the taxpayers approx. $50K/annum extra (much of which will go into the contracting company's pocket), but is all in the name of increasing contractors and reducing federal employees.

Also here at NIH (where there are 20+ institutes), all of our human resources offices have been consolidate into a single NIH human resources group, and they in turn will be folded into a DHHS human resources organization within the coming year. Net savings -sorry, I'm not an insider so the following numbers may be inaccurate]: 150 head-count (out of 400 or so). Net cost to infrastructure: very high.

Our human resource office in my NIH institute was first-rate, and had employees who were dedicated to meet the research needs of our institute. They had institute-specific knowledge, and were committed to hiring people who could help meet the research goals of our institute. Now they, and all the institutional memory that they carry have been 'consolidated.' It takes a long time to build institutional memory and useful staff, and very little time to deconstruct these apparatus.

Only a change in administration will staunch the current flow, and it looks unlikely at best at this point.

Stephen Barr: Thanks for sharing this example with us. It shows the risk that agencies run--especially institutional know-how--when consolidations and contracting out takes place. I'm not sure a change in administration will make a difference. Hate to sound so cynical. But there are political points to score with voters and the business community in these efforts that are typically portrayed as cutting the fat and bringing the government into the 21st century. Good luck out there, Bethesda. Hate to see the fine work of NIH eroded by HHS headquarters.

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Arlington, VA: The military are on job 24 hrs a day 7 days week. Us civilian DOD employees are not. It is easier to have a military member work extra etc because you can issue a direct order. For me a lose $5 an hour when I work overtime. If the military member isn't working out you can transfer that day and get a new one within 30 days. isn't going to happen with cilivians. Don needs stop using
psychoactive substances and deal with real world and a world of made up intelligence

Stephen Barr: Actually, you and Rumsfeld are in agreement. The Defense secretary argues that these jobs ended up in the military because the civil service is not flexible enough to allow managers to move people around and change their job descriptions. To your other point, Congress needs to revamp the overtime pay rules, since too many people lose out when they work extra hours because of the OT cap.

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Beltsville, MD: Student Loan Repayment, etc.

While there may be a generation gap in the current Federal sector, it is not this that is solely driving decisions to pay for student loans, etc. Keep in mind that most agencies have had to take the funding out of their shrinking budgets to cover these costs. With this in mind, who do you think will be hired - the person demanding a student loan repayment or the person who does not ask for student loan repayment. I think that rather than throw off that the generation gap is creating these problems that we need to address the real issues. For example, are the benefits the Federal government provides consistent in the real world. While some of the Federal benefits and perks may not reach the level of the private sector, we do have a good solid benefits package. How many private sector employees do you know that get the same amount of leave as you do? Instead of constantly asking for me, Federal employees need to see that they really don't have it so bad.

As a taxpayer, I believe that adding more perks to an already worthwhile benefits package is wasting my tax dollars.

Stephen Barr: That's clearly an argument that is being made. If an agency doesn't need to offer loan reimbursements as a way to hire young people, then why should it? Clearly, the slumping economy has given agencies a larger applicant pool to draw from, and most of the government's hiring problems are due to its lousy procedures, and not a lack of applicants. Still, I think these loan repayments would give agencies a very effective way to get top-notch graduates and wish more would give it a try.

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Minneapolis, MN: It seems that federal employees will be under threat of job competition every 5 years in perpituity, whereas once the job goes to a contractor it will always be done by a contractor.

Stephen Barr: That's true. These competitions will come up every 3, 5 or 8 years. But the new A-76 rules are trying to level the playing field, and contractors may lose some advantages they had before.

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Springfield, Va.: Do you have any advice for outsiders seeking a job in the federal government? I graduated from college in 2002 and am not having any luck finding a federal position.

Stephen Barr: Persistence and patience. A sense of humor helps, too. I'm no job-search expert, but I always think it is best to target the agency and kind of work you want to do and just keep knocking on the door. You are allowed to make contact with agency employees to find out what the situation is and get some ideas on how to sell yourself. If you can join a professional organization, that might be a good source for contacts. Best of luck!

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Washington, D.C.: How does one with a masters in public administration really go about getting a job in the federal government at the GS-9 or higher. I am finding it somewhat hard to do. But I would really like to start a new career in the federal government.

Stephen Barr: Have you checked out the Presidential Management Intern program and the Career Intern Program? They get your foot in the door and let you move up quickly without competing. Some agencies, like the Health and Human Services Department, offer specialized hiring programs, such as Emerging Leaders. You might also circle back to your college and see what advice you can get from the placement office. Hope you find the career you want!

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Arlington, Va.: Do you think the threat of RIFs has lessened despite warnings of bigger deficits? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: Had not thought of RIFs in that context. Red ink does put pressure on agencies to cut costs and reduce overhead. But much of the work has to be done, regardless of budget deficits, so I'm not sure you can draw a straight line between the two. As an outsider, I see agency reorganizations and contracting out as bigger threats to federal jobs. Still, agencies hate to run RIFs because they are bad for morale, disruptive and need to be done early in a budget year to recoup severance and other costs. Perhaps we'll know more in October, once the budgets for the new fiscal year are set.

Once again, we've run out of time. Thanks to all of you who sent in questions and comments and my thanks to the faithful readers who parse Diary transcripts. We'll see you here at noon next Wednesday.

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