By Phil Piemonte
This time of year means spring break for a lot of people. A lot of kids are out of school, including those big kids in Congress.
As a result, the news out of Washington usually slows down considerably. Federal employees, whose pay and benefits have been under assault in Congress for close to two years, ordinarily would have heaved a sigh of relief during a recess. Or at least stopped holding their breath. But maybe not this time.
This time the news out of Washington actually purred right on, thanks to a story that seems custom-tailored to fill the news vacuum created by the congressional recess — enough for several news cycles, anyway.
That story, of course, is the General Services Administration conference debacle.
The problem for federal employees is that it’s one more news story that characterizes feds (a handful of them, at least) as bad actors, and it comes at a time when feds (the 2 million-plus others) see their pay and benefits under attack. The last thing feds need in this legislative environment is for the public to associate federal employees with wasteful bureaucrats.
The conference story broke in the wake of the release of an April 2 “management deficiency report” from GSA’s inspector general. That report contains details of a lavish 2010 Western Regions Conference held by GSA’s Public Buildings Service at the M Resort Spa Casino outside Las Vegas. The conference, held for about 300 attendees, cost $822,751, according to the IG’s tally.
Here’s one item from the IG report:
“GSA spending on conference planning was excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible. To select a venue and plan the conference, GSA employees conducted two ‘scouting trips,’ five off-site planning meetings, and a ‘dry run.’ Six of these planning events took place at the M Resort (the conference venue) itself. Travel expenses for conference planning totaled $100,405.37, and catering costs totaled over $30,000. GSA spent money on refreshment breaks during the planning meetings, which it had no authority to do, and the cost of catered meals at those meetings exceeded per diem limits.”
You get the picture.
Among other things, the IG found that GSA failed to follow contracting regulations in many of the procurements associated with the conference, incurred excessive and impermissible costs for food, and spent money on questionable things like mementos, clothing and tuxedo rentals.
In something of an understatement, the IG concluded: “GSA’s approach to the conference indicates that minimizing expenses was not a goal.”
GSA, as the report noted, agreed with the findings, and said it would impose controls. The expenses were clearly out of line. But try doing damage control on a story like this — especially during an economic recovery. It can’t be done.
In the past few days, Americans across the country have learned — in broadcast and print — about GSA’s over-the-top expenses, the resignation of GSA Administrator Martha Johnson, and the firing of Public Buildings Service Commissioner Robert Peck. They learned that Johnson’s successor also decided to cancel several similar upcoming conferences. Oops.
And while he might be on break, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), apparently not wholly satisfied with the IG's effort to get to the bottom of things, announced he would launch his own investigation into what he has dubbed the GSA junket.
The day after Mica’s announcement, Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) joined him to ask GSA to provide information on another matter as well — an awards program that the two lawmakers said used “$200,000 worth of taxpayer funds for iPods, electronics, [and] gift cards” to reward GSA employees “for dubious reasons.”
Mica told reporters that the 2010 Las Vegas conference “is just the tip of the iceberg.”
“GSA’s habitual mismanagement of taxpayer-owned assets is what makes spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a conference for bureaucrats so appalling,” he said.
Bureaucrats. There’s that common theme: Taxpayers are getting nailed to pay for bureaucrats.
In a week or so, Congress will reconvene to hammer out — hopefully not with a $435 hammer — pending bills that are destined to set the course for your pay and benefits.
Just hope, in this election year, that the GSA junket hasn’t gotten some of those lawmakers into more of a lather than they were when they left.
Posted on Apr 06, 2012 at 7:19 AM32 comments
"We do a great disservice to hundreds of thousands of federal employees when a constrained fiscal environment is interpreted as a referendum on the value of public service."
Most feds would probably agree with that.
The speaker was retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad W. Allen, in his March 22 testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management.
The topic of that hearing was morale at the Department of Homeland Security. But Allen—a former commandant of the Coast Guard, and now a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton—easily could have been talking about the federal workforce as a whole in the quote above.
While Allen aimed his testimony at the problems at DHS, his discourse on the nature of morale—and the ways it is affected by factors such as leadership, work environment, mission support architecture, and planning and coordination—easily could apply to any federal department or agency.
The same goes for some of the problems Allen described that exist at DHS. While the following list of concerns certainly is pertinent at DHS, one could argue that in today’s hyper-politicized and media-intensive environment, these particular issues also have come to hound agencies across the entire government.
Some of the top ones Allen says have dogged DHS:
(1) Public “zero tolerance” for failure.
(2) Unrelenting media scrutiny.
(3) Duplicative oversight.
(4) The inevitable immediate public discourse and referendum on departmental performance while operations are being conducted.
Certainly folks at the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other DHS components would agree.
But these days, one could argue that a lot of non-DHS feds are in the same boat, and are increasingly being affected by the same pressures.
You’re a fed—what do you think?
Posted on Mar 26, 2012 at 7:35 AM30 comments
Amid lawmakers’ call to downsize the federal workforce, many commenters to this blog regularly call for chopping from the top. And they are not the only ones.
With Defense Department budget cuts in the news, a columnist for the Washington Post this week noted that many old-time observers of DOD think the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff might be ripe for downsizing, given their burgeoning growth over the years.
Of particular note: The growth over the decades in the numbers of undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries at OSD, as well as within the service branches themselves. The column details a number of examples.
In fact, DOD does seem overloaded at the top, given the sheer number of these folks. Too many chiefs, it would seem.
Their titles, of course, by design all confer the cachet of “secretary” on the holders.
In that regard, OSD is a bit like the public relations world, where the top honchos are supported by hierarchies of people who all have important-sounding positions.
For example, tracing down the food chain at a typical PR firm, one encounters executive vice presidents, senior vice presidents, vice presidents, senior account executives, account executives and assistant account executives—dozens of “chiefs” supported by one receptionist, a tech guy and maybe one or two secretaries—I mean, administrative assistants.
But you get the picture: Everyone wants to have a C-suite title, and it costs nothing to give it to them. The pay is the same. But in the end, a title doesn’t offer much of a clue to what someone actually does.
I’ve worked at PR outfits that specialized in public affairs, and held the titles of group director, managing director and vice president. But in any other business, I simply would have been called a writer.
The point is that even with title inflation, people can be performing real jobs and taking care of key functions.
As for the Pentagon, maybe the top ranks really are overgrown. DOD ain’t the PR industry: Even the officials at the lower levels of the secretary’s executive hierarchy are pretty big fish. So maybe the department is in fact top-heavy.
Most federal workers would agree that—given the current fiscal constraints that are affecting the federal workforce as a whole—the top ranks should not be exempt from cuts.
At the same time, before going after the ranks of top officials—at Defense or anywhere else—it probably would not be a bad idea to look past the inflated titles to see what people really do.
Rank-and-filers would expect the same for themselves.
Posted on Mar 09, 2012 at 5:06 AM34 comments
No, not those; we mean the legislative kind. The ones that target the federal workforce.
And there are plenty of them. In fact, there are so many bills in Congress that put federal employees in the cross hairs, that you probably are hard pressed to keep track of them.
You may or may not be surprised to learn that there are about two dozen such bills in various stages of the legislative process in the House and the Senate at this very moment.
Each bill targets one or more of the things that define your life as a fed—your pay, your pension, the size of the federal workforce, and more.
That’s why we’re glad that the National Treasury Employees Union put together a list of all or most of this legislation for its annual legislative conference this week in Washington, D.C.
While the list is a snapshot—these days such bills seem to sprout overnight like mushrooms—it provides a pretty good picture of the size and scope of the current legislative effort to squeeze cost savings out of the federal workforce.
Here’s the list the union compiled:
H.R. 270 — would impose a mandatory two-week unpaid furlough for federal employees
H.R. 3835 — would extend the pay freeze for another year.
H.R. 3844 — would prohibit step increases.
H.R. 235 — proposes cuts to the federal workforce and a three-year pay freeze.
S. 2079 — would extend the pay freeze for another year.
S. 2065 — would extend the freeze through June 30, 2014.
S. 1476 — would extend the freeze through 2014.
S. 178 and H.R. 408 — would extend the freeze through 2015.
S. 1936 — would extend the pay freeze from its present two years to five years.
S. 644 — would eliminate the defined benefit portion of the Federal Employees Retirement System annuity.
H.R. 3813 — would sharply increase pension contributions, eliminate the FERS supplement and raise pension contributions for new hires.
H.R. 2114 — would cut the federal workforce by 10 percent by 2015, while providing a significant loophole for contracting out the work to the private sector.
S. 2065 — would reduce the size of government by 5 percent through attrition.
H.R. 657 — calls for cuts in the federal workforce. All agencies, other than Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security—which account for 60 percent of the workforce—would be able to hire only one employee for every two who leave federal service.
H.R. 3029, H.R. 3487 and S. 1476 — would reduce the size of the federal government through attrition by permitting the hiring of only one employee for every three who left government service.
H. R. 1779 — would prohibit the head of any executive branch agency from hiring in any year in which OMB projects a federal budget deficit.
S. 1611 — would allow the replacement of three employees who leave federal service by one new employee.
H.R. 3494 — would reduce the size of the federal workforce to no more than that of Oct. 7, 2007.
H.R. 3662 — would allow the hiring of one employee for every three who leave federal service.
S. 178 — would, among many other actions, limit the size of the federal workforce and extend the pay freeze through 2015.
S. 261 — would cut workers’ compensation payments for older federal employees.
H.R. 87 and S. 712 — would repeal financial regulatory reform (the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act) supported by NTEU.
The list, which NTEU posted on its website, also provides the status of each piece of legislation as of this week—but from day to day, the Library of Congress’s THOMAS database probably is the best source of what’s going on with an individual bill.
As if you didn’t have enough to worry about already.
Posted on Feb 29, 2012 at 7:32 AM44 comments