Buzz of the Week: GSA’s Williams: Kudos and questions

The Bush administration’s choice of Jim Williams to head the General Services Administration received general acclaim last week, but the timing of the nomination raises a lot of questions.

On Wednesday, GSA acting Administrator David Bibb announced he would retire Sept. 1, and, later in the day, the administration announced Williams was its nominee to fill the slot. So far so good, but here’s the catch: Williams has not been named acting administrator, which means he must wait to be confirmed before taking the helm. Bibb will continue in that role until he leaves the agency.

This raises several questions:

  • Can the Senate get its act together and confirm Williams before the end of August?

  • If the nomination is held up beyond Sept. 1, would Williams want to give up his career position — and possibly face retirement in January — to take such a short-lived post?

  • Meanwhile, who would take the helm of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, which  seems to be just now coming together under Williams’ leadership?

These questions muddle an otherwise positive turn of events. After Lurita Doan’s tumultuous tenure, people in the community had been pleased to have the well-respected Bibb in the post, even if only in an acting capacity. Many people in the community give kudos to the Bush administration for nominating someone equally respected.

Also, many were surprised that Bush chose to appoint a career federal employee to a political position. The administration has often been criticized for making political considerations paramount in filling top-level posts. Under Bush, the positions of both the GSA general counsel and chief acquisition officer have become political appointees.

But still more questions remain, some of which Williams must answer during his confirmation hearings. Before joining GSA, Williams led the much-troubled U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program at the Homeland Security Department. People familiar with the program say Williams did a good job, making progress despite systemic problems with the program and at DHS. But lawmakers will have questions.

Finally, the biggest question remains: Given the complex problems at GSA and the short time in which to work, how much progress could Williams really hope to make?

Benefits of the living dead
Having your identity stolen is bad enough. Having it happen because the Social Security Administration thinks you’re dead is just insulting.

That erroneous diagnosis has happened to more than 20,000 people since 2004, according to the SSA’s inspector general, and those people’s Social Security numbers and other personal information have been released as part of the Death Master File. SSA sells the data to an array of customers, including government agencies, investigative businesses and genealogists. And in some cases, the customers post it on the Web.

The IG recommended that SSA take some precautions, such as holding the data for a year before releasing it to customers and using the time to validate it and remove erroneous entries.

Coast Guard still in deep water
The Coast Guard is doing a better job managing the $24 billion, 25-year Deepwater acquisition program, but it still needs to hire more acquisition experts, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Coast Guard took over lead integrator duties from its contractor, Integrated Coast Guard Systems — actually a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. — a year ago. The service has a 20 percent vacancy rate in its acquisition office, and must rely on contractors to fill the gap, GAO said.

Good help remains hard to find.

#3: You’re getting a raise
One reason the Coast Guard — and other agencies — might have trouble hiring good help is that the federal pay system continues to be, well, weird.

Federal employees are getting a raise in fiscal 2009 But how much? Who knows! The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a 3.9 percent pay increase for federal civilian employees next year, and the full House had approved the same amount for the military last month.

The Bush administration earlier this year proposed a 2.9 percent raise for civilian workers and a 3.4 percent increase for military personnel.

How much difference does it make? Well, a GS-11 Step One civilian employee working in Washington, D.C., earns $58,206. Under the Bush proposal, that would go to $59,893. Under the House’s numbers, the increase is to $60,476. That’s only a $583 annual difference. This shouldn’t be hard to resolve.

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