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Reforming IT, Dealing With Misconduct, Raising Pay and More

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Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., wants to reform federal agency management. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., wants to reform federal agency management. AP file photo

Rep. Gerry Connolly has long been a key player in federal management issues. As a senior member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Virginia Democrat co-authored one of the most far-reaching management reforms in years—the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. FITARA requires IT leaders to collaborate with other agency leaders in financial management, acquisition, project management and human capital to improve operations. Connolly recently spoke with me about the next phase of FITARA implementation. He also discussed the controversy surrounding Acting Office of Personnel Management Director Beth Cobert’s eligibility to become the permanent head there; the 5.3 percent pay increase included in forthcoming legislation; and his take on Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s recent comments about Metro funding.

We're past the first phase of FITARA implementation. The first grades have been out for awhile. What's your view about what should come next?

Obviously the grades were the baseline. We wanted to make sure that that didn't translate into a scarlet letter on someone's back. It was, "where you were starting from?" And the good news is, we have a lot of room for growth. The other good news is a lot of agencies are taking that very seriously, and are attempting to make reforms pursuant to FITARA. I'm very happy about that.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is looking at an audit of legacy systems. We would like to have a comprehensive audit so we know what we're dealing with. We know that we're still dealing with things like COBOL. John Koskinen, the head of IRS, talked about having some systems that go back to the administration of John Kennedy—53-year-old IT systems in the IRS. We'd like to have a full inventory of what are all these systems, how many have we got, and what will it take to replace them.

On a broader scale, we want to see a plan of implementation for every federal agency. Every agency is unique, it's different, it's got a mission, but there are management characteristics with respect to the procurement and management of IT assets that are common. We want to see every agency come up with its plan for how you're going to meet the goals and the seven pillars of FITARA.

PRESIDENTIAL TRANSITION

Do you have a timeline for that? You're up against a presidential transition here in the next eleven months.

We'll work with federal agencies. I don't think we have a specific deadline, but what we are committed to doing on our committee and our two respective subcommittees, on a completely bipartisan basis, is to have periodic oversight hearings to measure and plot how well implementation is going.

I was very heartened by the release of the grades. That hearing [at which the grades were released] didn't devolve into a bash session about, "You failed. Why are you a failure?" I thought it was a very constructive hearing and a good look at what's going on.

I'm very glad you had that reaction, because that was exactly our intent. We even debated about the scorecard, because Washington being Washington, that's what it would devolve into. All of us were very careful in how we approached that and the rhetoric surrounding it. I think the media did a good job of portraying that accurately, that this is a baseline report.

But I imagine there will be a time at some point in the future—maybe far into the future—where you and your colleagues will not be quite as forgiving, where you'll expect to start to see results.

If we find intransigence, resistance, recalcitrance, that's going to be called out. But I will say so far, most of the CIOs I've talked to, and certainly the leadership at OMB, have been very supportive. This is the first time in my memory in Washington that there have been a series of conferences and seminars about implementation of what heretofore might have been seen as a rather obscure management bill. I myself have talked to about a dozen such conferences and they're full—hundreds of people. That's very exciting. There's a lot of enthusiasm being generated about this legislation and using it as a tool to further the mission, to achieve efficiencies, to do it better and provide higher-quality service and improve productivity and morale. We can save a lot of money - billions of dollars, according to CBO and OMB. So we have a moment of consensus.

How do you see the presidential transition affecting this timeline and this implementation course?

Hopefully, I don't think it will affect it at all. There will be a change in OMB, but if we are right that this has broad bipartisan support, I don't think it matters whether it's a Republican or Democratic administration. We've got to get this done, and there's consensus about that on both sides of the aisle.

The potential pain point I see is agencies where the chief information officers are also political appointees and they're conducting a hand-off at the same time as the broader administration is conducting the hand-off.

Again, because we have total Republican agreement on my committee, we need to move forward with all deliberate speed, certainly on the Democratic side as well. I don't think that's going to be the kind of threat it might be with a different, more controversial kind of legislation. Check with me next February. A year from now, I hope I don't have to retract those comments.

EMPLOYEE DISCIPLINE

The Merit Systems Protection Board is under fire right now because of the three cases of executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs. What do you make of the controversy about MSPB itself and the role that it plays in providing that appeal place for federal employees?

I don't want to get into the merits of individual cases, or even into the business of second-guessing an individual judge's ruling on a personnel matter. However, it is very clear that the legislation we adopted with respect with the Veterans Administration was a clear shot across the bow to the VA, that they needed to get very serious about cleaning up the mess—the backlog; behavior that had falsified or distorted records of timing in response to patients' requests for appointments; treatment schedules; and the like.

We certainly don't want the Merit Systems Protection Board essentially being used as a false protection against those practices. I would caution everybody involved that Congress made it clear that it was quite dissatisfied with the overall management of the VA and that we were prepared in an extraordinary move to even suspend normal protocol with respect to firing, to hold managers accountable in that one agency. I fear that if that is ignored in these adjudications, it only invites more stringent involvement by the Congress, which I think none of us would feel is desirable.

Do you think it is time for a broader reform of how agencies can discipline employees?

I think it's always healthy to refresh the mechanisms we have in place. There is a perception that, at times, the civil service system, in its noble desire to protect civil servants from political retaliation, nepotism, cronyism, favoritism, and corruption, sometimes protects the incompetent. We all lose when that happens, because we need to be rewarding productivity, efficiency, integrity, honesty, and good performance. Where is that balance? It can't be an absolute balance, one side of the spectrum or the other, and I think it probably makes sense periodically to review how we're doing in that balance.

One must caution, though, that a couple of high-profile cases don't necessarily characterize the whole system and sometimes we in Washington tend to overreact to a couple of headlines that may not in any way really reflect what is going on on a day-to-day basis.

What is striking to me in these situations is that the people who seem to be most interested in the employees engaging in the misconduct being disciplined are the other employees at that agency. 

If you are a committed, diligent employees, and you're seeing misconduct or abuse of some sort going on within your agency, that's got to be more than discouraging. The fact that it's not weeded out, and on occasion even rewarded, has got to leave you with a bitter sense of injustice. The system has to respond to that in order to protect all the productive employees who aren't engaged in that kind of behavior.

FEDERAL PAY

5.3 percent is the pay increase that you're calling for in your new bill. How'd you get that number? It's very precise.

Well, we took the president's 1.6 percent. Then we took what was the cost-to-compete—how much more would we have done if we had actually implemented the law of looking at private sector comparables? That was another 1.3 percent. Then the locality pay, which has been frozen for a number of years, was another 1.4 percent. That got us to 5.3 percent.

Who do you have with you as co-sponsors on that bill so far?

I think we will have everyone—well, almost everyone—in the National Capital delegation, as we have in the past. I hope, upon reflection, a lot of other colleagues might look favorably upon this. The federal employee has really been a punching bag for the last six years and grossly, unfairly so. Only federal employees have had their compensation cut, restricted, frozen under the guise of contributing to the retirement of the federal debt. They've contributed about $189 billion so far and counting. No other group in America has been asked to do that.

They've had their service disparaged, starting with a speech given by the future and former speaker, John Boehner, in the fall of 2010 in Cincinnati, I believe it was, where he basically said, "There are too many of them. They're overpaid. They're incompetent. They're not productive or efficient. They're not like other mortals." What a thing to say.

What I find ironic is this is the same crowd that says we ought to run government like a business. I was in the private sector with two companies and I was a corporate officer for 20 years. No CEO of any company, privately or publicly traded, would be allowed to remain in his or her job by their Board of Directors if they started out by disparaging their own workforce, characterizing them as lazy and incompetent and overpaid, too many of them, and "we're going to freeze their salaries, we're going to cut their benefits, we're going to reduce their numbers, and flogging will continue until morale improves." That CEO would be removed from office, and should be, because that's not how you run an enterprise.

It is particularly troubling given the demographics we face. At least 40 percent of the current federal employee workforce is eligible for retirement in the next four or five years. The Baby Boom generation is a huge bulge in the workforce, and they're going to be retiring. How are we going to recruit and retain their replacements when we have, by design, made federal service less and less desirable?

My sense is that disparagement level has gone down considerably. Have you detected a lessening of that rhetoric?

I think that may be an accurate observation, but I wouldn't read too much into it. We're one bill away, one amendment away, one speech away, from reviving the whole thing. We have to keep our fingers crossed when appropriations bills start to come to the floor. The new speaker has said he wants regular order on those twelve appropriations bills. That means anyone can go to the floor and move an amendment. You could have hundreds of amendments per bill, with no rule limiting time or number. That's a good process in the abstract, but it invites some mischief, too.

What other concerns do you have about the workforce as the budgeting process gears up?

As you know, I have focused on IT, especially, because I believe it can be transformative. I think it can help us with recruitment and retention with a younger generation that expects mobile devices, expects a lot more freedom, expects things like telework, and a more flexible workplace. Technology drives a lot of that.

Secondly, I would say service to our constituents. Again, if you've got clunky 40- and 50-year old technology, no wonder the IRS has trouble responding to taxpayer concerns. No wonder OPM had a breach that compromised data on 22 million people. Look at the technology they're trying to manage. I would hope that we would make a concerted effort on a bipartisan basis to reinvest in the federal agencies on the IT sector and I believe that has lots of positive ripple effects on the workforce itself. Making work more desirable, making it more productive and efficient, and making people feel more comfortable that we're kind of operating in a 21st century environment.

It will lead to more flexibility and more common-sense rules of engagement. Telework's a great example of that, that we're getting out of the juridical mindset and more focused on bottom-line work product.

OPM ISSUES

Are you satisfied with the follow-up that we've seen from the Office of Personnel Management to the cyber breach there?

I think they're trying their best to manage it. I anecdotally continue to get feedback in my district, which has a lot of federal employees and retirees—and people with security clearances—that the service provided to help protect and detect can be spotty. My own experience, actually, with that service has been positive. It hasn't been spotty at all. Actually, they've caught some things in my data that we were not aware of, but that's not everyone's experience.

I think they really need to stay on top of that. I've made it very clear to the acting director, Beth Cobert, that, "Look, these are victims and your first obligation is to those victims. Keep them whole. Protect them. Add services as required, but we've got to make sure they're not on their own because they actually trusted the government with very personal data."

We're learning about Ms. Cobert's status as acting director. Some of the work that she's done in the time that she's been in that spot will have to be essentially ignored. What's your take on what's going on at OPM?

I will just note parenthetically, it's an odd thing for an IG going out the door at the eleventh hour to issue an opinion that the acting director is not really the acting director. I find that odd, and worthy of further scrutiny. Having said that, it is what it is. It underscores why the snail's pace of confirmation for executive nominations in the Senate for this President is unconscionable. Leaving huge agencies that have an impact on the entire functioning of the federal government, on every employee of that enterprise, in limbo because you can't get around to having a hearing and confirming or not the president's nominee, is, I think, dysfunction at its worst.

I imagine that's a particular frustration because there's no great opposition that I'm aware of to her nomination.

Right. There's no rhyme or reason to this one at all. There is no philosophical objection. There's no professional credential objection. She's been in the job. There are no objections even to that. She was put in the job because my colleagues rightfully questioned her predecessor's response to, and responsibility for, the breach. Beth was put in there as somebody hopefully who could address that, manage that, and try to clean it up as best she could. If it's such a priority for us, where are some of my colleagues who called for her predecessor's head? Why aren't they calling upon their friends in the Senate on their side of the aisle to act expeditiously on confirming this nomination?

A transportation issue that affects your constituents that commute into Washington. Some big changes are happening at [Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority]. What do you think of the new leader at Metro, Paul Wiedefeld?

I invited him—and he accepted—to join me on the Orange Line, and we commuted from Vienna into Washington, so he could see the good, the bad, and the ugly of his own system. We talked with riders. The press came out and covered some of that. I think he's a good listener. I think he is absorbing a lot. Everything initially I see about him, from him, and have experienced directly tells me he gets it. He gets that this is a very broken system, and it's not just a few little fixes and we can turn it around.

What has happened with Metro is a culture of mediocrity, and indifference to customer service has crept into the organization at every level. That has to be cauterized and removed. There has to be a "you're the customer" kind of attitude by every employee. He's going to have to make some serious personnel changes, I think, at every level to make that point.

Francis Rose is an award-winning broadcaster, journalist, speaker, writer and host of FrancisRose.com. He is the author of OPM Cyber Breach: An In-Depth Look at the Worst Cyber Attack in Government History and the upcoming book Greatness Again: Revitalizing America’s Strategic Leadership on the World Stage. You can listen to the complete audio of this interview at FrancisRose.com.

Francis Rose is an award-winning broadcaster, journalist, speaker, writer and host of FrancisRose.com. He is the author of OPM Cyber Breach: An In-Depth Look at the Worst Cyber Attack in Government History and the upcoming book Greatness Again: Revitalizing America’s Strategic Leadership on the World Stage. You can listen to the complete audio of this interview at FrancisRose.com.

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