News NewsNews
Breaking developments on management, technology, pay, benefits and more

Bill to liberate EPA ombudsman languishes

A last-ditch effort to create an independent ombudsman's office at the Environmental Protection Agency was thwarted when Congress adjourned last week without approving legislation authorizing the move.

On Nov. 20, the Senate passed the Ombudsman Reauthorization Act of 2001 (S. 606) and sent it to the House for action, but the bill made it no further than the House Energy and Commerce Committee before the 107th Congress adjourned on Friday.

The bill was an effort to countermand changes made by the agency last April when EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman began restructuring the ombudsman's role at the agency. EPA's National Ombudsman Robert Martin, who challenged Whitman's changes, was folded into the agency's inspector general's office where he had no control of his budget, staff or cases.

The bill's author, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., was concerned the changes would remove the ombudsman's independence and sought to establish an independent Office of the Ombudsman with a separate budget and staff within EPA. Under Allard's bill the ombudsman would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Ombudsmen generally investigate citizens' complaints, and at EPA, the ombudsman focused on hazardous waste cleanups...

GAO: Scrapping visa program at State could hurt more than help

Eliminating the State Department's visa waiver program would not necessarily improve national security and could stretch the agency's resources thin, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress, the Bush administration and law enforcement officials expressed fears that terrorists might exploit the program, which allows citizens of 28 countries to enter the country and stay for up to 90 days for vacation or business without a visa.

But officials from the State and Justice departments interviewed by GAO from February to August had mixed opinions on whether or not eliminating the visa waiver program would actually enhance security.

"Anecdotal information indicates that [potential terrorists] have entered the United States under the Visa Waiver Program as well as with valid U.S. visas," making it hard to tell if the program poses any more of a security threat than the regular system for issuing visas, the report (GAO-03-38) said. Officials also had a hard time determining whether the program is a security threat because the government has not systematically gathered data on how often potential terrorists have entered the United States under the program.

The report also predicted that the State...

Former Education Department official, e-gov pioneer dies

Greg Woods, a former Education Department official who helped lead efforts to make the federal government more citizen-friendly, died of pancreatic cancer last Thursday.

Woods, 59, was the former chief operating officer of the Education Department's Federal Student Aid (FSA) office and one of the pioneers of the electronic government concept.

"If there's a school in heaven, and if a student needs financial aid, there's a new administrator there today who probably can't wait to get down to business," said G. Kay Jacks, general manager of FSA's Web site about financial aid, referring to Woods.

Woods was the FSA's first COO, joining the office when it was created in the fall of 1998. He retired this September.

"Greg was truly dedicated to the mission of the department to provide access to postsecondary education for millions of students," Education Secretary Rod Paige said in a statement. "He was committed to his work and the challenge of streamlining and updating the technology systems that deliver aid to help make the goal of college education a reality for so many."

While trying to help his six-year-old granddaughter understand his job, Woods came up with the slogan used...

High retention rates in military save Pentagon money

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones has said that his service's retention rate is the highest it has been in 18 years because young Americans want to stay in uniform to fight terrorism.

But hold on. Pentagon personnel chief Charles S. Abell, pointing to new charts, agrees that officers and enlisted people in all four armed services are sticking around at the highest rate since 1987, but he cited other reasons for this success. Higher pay, better benefits, a soft civilian economy, and "stop-loss" orders barring some soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines from leaving their services are also in the mix, Abell said.

There is no disagreement at the top of the Pentagon that the higher retention rates mean fewer civilians have to be enticed to serve in the military, and that saves big bucks. The Pentagon pegs the cost of recruiting each new civilian at $12,300.

Tension between OMB director, lawmaker could impact budget

If Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, decides to run for governor of Indiana in 2004, he might have a powerful ally-incoming Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who happens to be a native Hoosier.

It's not necessarily that Stevens thinks Daniels would make a fine governor. It's just that Stevens already has said he'd like it if Daniels would get out of his hair and go home.

Over the past two years, the two men have had a stormy relationship, as the short-fused Stevens has sought to protect his turf in the face of efforts by the blunt-talking Daniels to curb congressional spending. Now that the Republicans are poised to take back control of the Senate, the intramural GOP feud between Stevens and Daniels could lead to some serious budgetary problems. House Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., is also no great fan of Daniels, but Young is much more soft-spoken than the fiery and stubborn Stevens.

During November 13 interviews with National Journal, both Stevens and Daniels were upbeat about their future relations. "We're in the majority now," Stevens said. "It...

Hill remains at odds with White House over spending

Although Congress will not be in session in December, appropriators are hoping next month to speed up negotiations on the 11 remaining fiscal 2003 spending bills, with GOP leaders eager to get the bills wrapped into an omnibus package before the president's State of the Union address in late January.

But as this year has shown, nothing is a sure thing, and it is still unclear how everything is going to be resolved. A meeting at the White House last Friday among President Bush, House Appropriations Chairman C.W. (Bill) Young, R-Fla. and incoming Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, failed to clarify the situation, although it appears that they agreed, at least in principle, to try to end up at the president's budget level.

The White House is now saying it would accept a final fiscal 2003 total of about $750 billion, which is roughly the original request of $749 billion plus additional amendments sent to Congress this year. "The president made clear that [appropriators] should be at or about his level," said an OMB spokeswoman.

Stevens this week called the figure a "target," but some staffers said the figure remains unrealistic. "They're still asking us...

Agencies continue to wage war on jargon

It may not be readily apparent from a glance at the Federal Register, but many agencies are continuing to fight the long-running battle to get federal employees to use simple, direct language in communicating with the public.

Officials from a range of agencies gathered Thursday at a forum sponsored by the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), to discuss their progress on teaching employees to communicate clearly, and to share ideas on how to translate acronyms and technical terms into concepts the public can grasp.

PLAIN is a government-wide group of volunteers who believe that better communication will help citizens trust the government more. "People should be able to understand what [government employees] write the first time they read it, especially materials that tell people how to obtain benefits or comply with requirements," the group's Web site states.

Undersecretary of Education Gene Hickok told federal workers at the forum that he decided to join the crusade against convoluted language in 1995, when then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge appointed him the state's education secretary. Hickok placed a "jargon jar" in his office and fined his staffers $1 every time they used overly complex and technical language in his presence...

Human resources managers share hiring strategies

Some agencies are trying to attract new employees and keep current ones happy with fresh strategies that include signing bonuses for business school graduates and mentoring programs for potential senior executives.

Last Thursday, human resources managers from the General Accounting Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Education and Labor departments gathered to discuss how they have changed their hiring processes to meet, and even surpass, the requirements of President Bush's management agenda. The conference was co-sponsored by the Treasury Department's Federal Consulting Group and Canal Bridge Consulting, a Bethesda, Md.-based management consulting firm.

For example, the Labor Department has implemented a program to recruit candidates with Masters of Business Administration degrees. The department will select two groups of 15 business school graduates, and place them in management positions for two years. One group will start in January, and the other begins in May.

Labor was worried that it would be hard to convince MBAs to apply for the public sector jobs, according to Jerry Lelchook, Labor's deputy director of human resources. But it need not have worried-the program already has 250 applicants. The department is also in a position to offer signing bonuses to the...

Coalition seeks to halt diversion of patent fees

A "who's who" of technology companies and manufacturers on Wednesday heightened their push to keep the Bush administration from redirecting Patent and Trademark Office funds in next year's budget toward unrelated projects by agreeing to a fee increase if such diversions stop.

In a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, at least 77 companies and 22 associations that comprise the 21st Century Intellectual Property Coalition said they support the broad goals of a strategic plan outlined in June by PTO Director James Rogan. But the companies, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Red Hat said their support for the plan and the fee increase is contingent upon ending the longstanding diversion of such fees.

Over the past nine years, OMB and congressional appropriators have used more than $1 billion in patent fees to fund other programs, a practice that increasingly is despised by technology companies that are among those paying the fees. Last year, the Bush administration proposed a $192 million diversion, but slow growth in the number of patent applications meant that the actual figure was only $25 million.

"The threat is still there, and the real issue is whether [we are] willing...