Reporter’s Notebook

jason-miller-original“Reporter’s Notebook” is a weekly dispatch of news tidbits, strongly-sourced buzz, and other items of interest happening in the federal IT and acquisition communities.

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Common pitfalls USDA needs to avoid when modernizing IT

Agencies and industry alike are closely watching the Agriculture Department’s IT modernization plan and how it will interact with the new Centers of Excellence initiative announced by the White House’s Office of American Innovation.

Since USDA is the first agency to use this approach, which the White House unveiled in December, agencies want to know if it really will work and how they should prepare, while vendors are watching for potential opportunities.

One of the first steps is the General Services Administration’s expected awards under the CoE initiative for support services across the five focus areas — cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, service delivery analytics and contact center — that should come any day now.

In the meantime, USDA is starting to lay out its strategy of where the CoEs can help immediately.

The first piece came Feb. 1 with the launch of a new website, Farmers.gov . The agency says the site is an “interactive one-stop website for producers” and will add multiple features over the coming months to let agricultural producers make appointments with USDA offices, file forms and apply for USDA programs.

Gary Washington, the USDA chief information officer, said at the ServiceNow Federal Forum last week that Farmers.gov is part of the customer experience improvement strategy.

“This is where we are putting a lot of focus to. We want to make sure our business systems that we have are modernized so it’s like a self-service activity, and the customer can engage USDA from a technology and a business perspective all everything is fluid, seamless and it’s quick,” he said. “We have started with our farm production and conservation mission area where we are rolling out solutions that will allow that vision to be realized.”

Along with farmers, USDA is focusing on improving services to the scientific communities it serves.

Washington said this means giving more data and computing power to researchers to enable easier sharing of data sets.

“They want to be in the cloud and work with their academic partners to share these large data sets. We want to provide them with the opportunity to be able to have an infrastructure that will allow them to be able to do some of those things and provide efficiencies to the public,” he said. “We want to make sure our employees and our customers have a pleasant experience right on that farm and they are able to apply for loans, get technical assistance and financial assistance right on the farm.”

To that end, Washington said USDA begin to address the “tremendous duplicity and overlap” across the agency to simplify and improve services.

This means Washington will become at least the fourth CIO to try to consolidate data centers and networks, and to push toward shared services.

Washington said he plans to consolidate data centers from 39 to 2, with an eye to giving bureaus the option of using commercial cloud, and consolidate and modernize the end-user support services using robotics and artificial intelligence.

“That’s a huge undertaking for us but we are up to the task and our component CIOs and our leadership are right there with us to take this on,” he said. “We made a decision that we are going to do whatever we can to get down to two, a backup and a primary data center, and provide the best services we can and really focus on the service part of this.”

USDA My Services portal

Data is driving many of these strategies and USDA’s information was far from consistent and standardized. So under the digital services analytics CoE, Washington said this effort will make sure everyone is making decisions from the same data and through an online dashboard.

“Our Secretary looks at our human resources posture, our IT portfolio and makes decisions based on information he has online, not on paper,” he said. “We are expanding on that in fiscal year 2018 to all of our mission areas, and in 2019, we will expand on this even further so everybody has access to this data and know exactly what we are discussing.”

Washington said the agency is taking the data piece one-step further for employees with the creation of a new portal called USDA My Services, a one-stop shop for all administrative service needs.

USDA says the portal is an employee-centric system of engagement that integrates with other applications and data sources to let employees enter requests once, regardless of the service they need from human resources, IT, facilities, security or from multiple areas.

Employees also will be able to create personal dashboards for analytics to focus on the information they need for their jobs.

“We are putting a lot of emphasis on not just the IT workforce, bur preparing the entire workforce for these changes,” he said. “We are asking people to do business a different way and asking IT professionals to support more modern technologies. One step we have taken with our partnership with OAI is we are trying to prepare our young men and women by having them join the team and learn from them as we go through this journey. We are working with our HR colleagues at USDA to look strategically for how we prepare all these men and women for this huge undertaking.”

Spotlight on CoE efforts

Without a doubt, USDA is undertaking a major transformation and by being first out of the gate using the CoE concepts, the spotlight on their strategies is even brighter.

There are several factors Washington should be cognizant of as he leads these efforts, say several former federal agency CIOs who went through similar high-profile transformations.

David Bray, the former CIO of the Federal Communications Commission and now the executive director of the People-Centered Internet (PCI) coalition, said one of the biggest things people miss with digital transformation is changing how results are done by people using the new technology.

“The biggest hurdle is how you take separate teams and functions and merge them into one team, one mission while at the same time meeting all the needs of your stakeholders in and out of government,” Bray said. “That is a massive culture change, and can be the undoing much more than the new technology.”

Bray, who moved the FCC’s data center and applications to the cloud as part of the agency’s modernization effort, said organizations need to convince people of the credibility of the effort by demonstrating early successes.

“That gives you enough fuel and proof points to show you have momentum because once you lose momentum, it’s hard to get back,” he said. “You can modernize technology and move to the cloud or a better commercial service, but if you don’t also come up with a better process, which falls under the program or mission area, then your success will be minimal.”

Rob Klopp, the former Social Security Administration CIO and now working as a consultant with the State of California, described similar challenges he faced in modernizing major mission applications.

But the first piece of advice he’d offer is for USDA or any organization to take on modernization efforts that have a strong potential of lasting longer than any one CIO will be in their position.

“If you start with loosey-goosey,  touchy-feely workforce transformation things and then you go away in four years, if you haven’t found a way to make it stick, then it may not have been useful,” he said. “For all of these things, I think that you can accomplish more by trying to be really focused on delivering something to a state where you can be absolutely sure it will stay. A lot of times what that means is you have to focus on a smaller number of things that you know will stay and leave the other ones to the next person. I got some of it right when I was at SSA and didn’t get some of the things right. I’m sure if you went back to SSA today, you’d find things that stuck and find things that are in the process of decaying. So by focusing on the things that you can get to point where you make them stick is important, and that doesn’t mean you can’t take on something that will run beyond your lifespan as a CIO, but it means if you take on longer term things, you have to make sure you focus on some part that will stick.”

Quick wins equals money

Klopp, who made real progress at SSA in modernizing legacy systems, some more than 30-years-old, added each of the initiatives need strategies that aren’t just short term improvements, but how they will look in 5 or 10 years.

Both Klopp and Bray say finding funding for these modernization efforts always stresses these initiatives.

Klopp said he was lucky enough get support from SSA leadership to find money, but most agency IT budgets are stuck in the operations and maintenance rut.

Bray added that the first step to finding the money to modernize is like ripping off a Band-Aid, move to the cloud and then turn off the old systems.

Both say by using a commercial or outsourced model, agencies don’t have to worry about having money to modernize going forward and can just focus on ensuring the right capabilities exist on the modern infrastructure.

Bray said no one should be surprised by how hard digital transformation can be, which is why communication plans are so important.

“At some point you will need to pivot in your strategy and then you will need to show value from your efforts,” he said. “You also are interrupting the existing profit model of contractors so you need communication to the Hill, within the administration, and to the public. There may be people who will try to slow you down, both in government and in industry, but I think we are now reaching the point that there is so much evidence that we can’t continue to do business as usual, that you just will have to say this will require patience and have hiccups, but will be worth it in the end.”

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


GSA’s Murphy sees another path to reduce commercial pricing burden on vendors

The biggest surprise that came from my exclusive interview with Emily Murphy, the General Services Administration’s administrator, last week wasn’t her comfort talking about the Public Building Service and leases, or her recognition that 2017 was a tough year for the agency, or even the fact she said she would seriously look at making the schedules program more transparent to non-contract holders — one of my soapbox issues for the last decade.

Rather, it was about a procurement item where I figured after spending the last decade watching Murphy’s actions on Capitol Hill and listening to her speak on occasion at industry events, I knew where she stood—generally speaking, of course.

Then I asked a simple question: “What preconceived notions about GSA generally that, maybe, weren’t right, or were proven wrong?”

Without hesitation Murphy said the Transactional Data Reporting (TDR) initiative — a hot bed of concern and angst for industry for much of the past few years.

“I came in with a stronger preconceived notion that perhaps it was something we just wanted to roll back,” Murphy said. “I came in and saw a lot of the value of it, but I also realized that rolling it back in-and-of itself creates a burden for the very businesses we are trying to help. We are trying to move toward an e-invoicing system instead. So rather than doubling down on the burden, we are trying to work with them and partner going forward so we reach the results both industry and government want to, which is a good honest exchange of data and information.”

If you aren’t familiar with TDR and wondering what’s the big surprise, let me catch you up a little.

GSA developed the TDR initiative to replace the dreaded commercial sales requirement and its corresponding price reduction clause in June 2016.

The Commercial Sales Practices regulation requires contractors to disclose to GSA details of any discounts vendors offer to commercial customers for similar products and services. The Price Reduction Clause requires contractors to monitor their pricing over the life of the contract and provide the government with the same price reductions that they give to commercial customers.

The PRC has been at the center of most of government contracting-based False Claims Act whistleblower cases and settlements over the past decade. For much of the past decade, vendors have called on GSA to change the PRC because it doesn’t match up with how agencies buy or how contractors sell anymore.

Instead under TDR, vendors are providing information generated when the government purchases goods or services. It includes specific details such as descriptions, part numbers, quantities and prices paid for the items purchased.

Initially, GSA made TDR mandatory for all new schedule holders and any vendor who renewed their schedule contracts.

But in August, GSA made TDR voluntary, in part because of  vendor concerns and the Trump administration’s desire to address regulatory burden across all agencies.

Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners and a federal acquisition expert, said Murphy was correct not to just get rid of TDR because it would leave those companies that are taking part in the pilot facing a great deal of uncertainty.

Allen said GSA expected TDR to replace the need for vendors to provide commercial pricing data, but that’s not what’s happening on a broad scale.

“I just talked to a company last week whose contracting officer at the end of the TDR review asked them for commercial sales data even though they should’ve been trained that this is not necessary anymore,” Allen said. “I don’t see TDR ever moving past this small cadre of companies unless GSA succeeds in getting contracting officers stop asking for commercial sales data.”

It’s not a matter of training by GSA, but more of the old adage, “old habits are hard to break.”

GSA has been holding in person and online training sessions for the past year, including another one on Feb. 21.  The 90-minute webinar will feature a live demonstration of TDR for both vendors and users, and include questions and answers.

Murphy, who often heard vendor concerns when she was on the staffs of the House Small Business Committee and House Armed Services Committee, said she is trying to engage with industry as administrator to better understand their perspectives about the potential and real burdens.

“I think the better question is how do we make sure the government gets the data it needs to make the right decisions without unduly burdening our vendor community?” she said. “I hope to closely with the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies on e-invoicing. I think we are expected the Federal Acquisition Regulations Council to move forward with some e-invoicing rules in the future, and then seeing how do we transition from where we are to where we want to be in a way that takes in mind the burdens we are creating but also does give us the data we need to make responsible decisions.”

Murphy said the e-commerce portal provision in the 2018 Defense Authorization Act takes this idea of ensuring the government gets the best commercial prices a step further.

“That’s taking the idea that if our customers don’t know they are selling to the government, is there a way that we can have dynamic pricing competitions take place so we are getting the same prices the private sector is paying but we are doing so in a way that reduces the burden on them?” she said. “It’s an opportunity Congress has given us and it will require a lot of collaboration between Congress, OMB, GSA and our customer agencies as well as our industry partners.”

GSA and OMB  held an industry day in January to learn more about how to implement the provision.

Allen said the e-invoicing idea is interesting because it’s a more pragmatic way to capture data.

“Contracting programs like Alliant or NASA SEWP can provide specific price analysis information because the Alliant team, for example, touches every invoice,” he said. “Right now GSA touches hardly any schedule invoices or purchase order so I think where Emily is going is if it’s an e-invoice, it’s just as easy to send a copy to GSA as it is to send real live one to the Army. GSA sees invoices as providing the information about what was bought and the prices paid as a way to develop the price analysis for better customer use.”

Allen said e-invoicing may not meet all of GSA’s needs as it continues to try to replace the price reduction clause, but it will get them closer than TDR ever did.

In the meantime, Allen said vendors should be wary of TDR because of the risk that auditors still are tied to the old way of oversight where they expect to see specific data under the commercial services practices and price reduction clause.

“TDR world not provide classic sales data, but provides enough commercial sales information to make your contracting officer happy that they are awarding a task order or purchase order at fair and reasonable place,” he said. “But there is no FAR or GSAR standard of ‘enough.’ And since there is no standard, ‘enough’ varies from contracting officer to contracting officer, and that is a part of the concern for vendors.”

Murphy didn’t offer any timeline of when a draft rule or specifics about how e-invoicing could work, but the fact she understands and wants to improve the processes is an important first step.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


DoD’s costing exercise a silver lining in the troublesome audit effort

With President Donald Trump expected to release his fiscal 2019 budget request to Congress Monday, the focus on spending will undoubtedly come back to the fact that the Defense Department still can’t close its books.

The Pentagon kicked off its first-ever departmentwide audit in December for fiscal 2017, and lawmakers are paying close attention to how it goes. Without a doubt, the audit will be one of the most daunting tasks the DoD back-office personnel and systems have faced in decades. The inspector general reported in November that among DoD’s biggest barriers is data accuracy and accessibility.

But if there is a glimmer of light in the long, dark audit tunnel, it’s coming from an effort to establish common terms around costs for all lines of businesses.

David Tillotson, DoD’s assistant deputy chief management officer, said at the recent Association of Government Accountants Financial Systems Summit that standardizing around this data will let the services and agencies more easily make internal comparisons as well as compare their efforts to the commercial sector.

“The administration will add some money to our budget, but not all the money we really need. So you can expect the department to find money by asking if we can be more efficient or stop doing specific work,” he said. “We are running a lot of things that are very identifiable as not combat missions. More importantly, we can identify a lot of things that have analogs to the commercial space, so why not look at things through same productivity lines as anyone else in this business? Take the combatant command for transportation, they are a large multi modal transportation provider or the Air Mobility Command, they are emulating lessons from the airlines. All of this is to drive this efficiency effort forward.”

Mark Easton, the deputy comptroller at DoD, added the services and agencies struggled to answer basic questions about what certain mission areas cost.

“This provides us with that opportunity and clearly it complements the audit,” he said. “If we are using financial information to make decisions, that will improve the quality as will standards and reducing the number of disparate systems. We still are facing a significant culture barrier to getting this done, but this is where the money is, so we have to look for it.”

He said a lot of this cost data comes from general ledger systems in the services and agencies.

“We deployed a team and went down to the executive level of databases of  the general ledgers. They decomposed the cost elements down to the accounting codes, and then exposed and documented the diversity and complexity on how we were doing things. The accounting standards were open enough that each base could pick its own codes. Now we have documented those elements and codes, and can reflect the data back to the CFOs and told them to impose more rigor.”

Tillotson said DoD has been working on this costing effort for about 18 months and already has completed real property, IT, medical, and is in the middle of doing cost comparisons now for logistics and supply and the costs of financial management. DoD also will apply this approach to human resources and community services.

Tillotson said the end goal is threefold: validate their outcomes against the private sector; see how they are doing in terms of costs as compared to the private sector; and to use the data to make better decisions across the DoD.

“The better financial management data gets, the better our data sets are and the better our mapping is and that helps clean up our financials,” he said. “As we make internal DoD decisions, we can’t keep doing data calls so this will help us as we review our business practices.”

Tillotson said DoD already is seeing benefits. In the real property  area, for example, DoD looked at how offices leased space and then compared it to available space within military bases in the area.

“There is a Defense agency that leases a building in Atlanta, but we also have two military bases in the area. The lease is above market rate so our next question was can we put that office on base and jettison the lease?” he said. “In the National Capital Region, we eliminated $30 million of lease costs by making better use of military space. We are paying for it whether it’s used or not so why not use it?”

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


Did the government’s acquisition training website have a cyber incident?

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Did the federal acquisition website called FAITAS suffer a cyber incident? Are thousands of contracting officers and contracting officer representatives’ (COR) data at risk?

The government isn’t offering any details of what’s going on, so I pulled out my reporter’s notebook (pun intended) and started to do some digging.

Let’s look at what we know for sure and you, the reader, can decide whether there is something more than meets the eye.

Fact 1: The Federal Acquisition Institute Training Application System (FAITAS) has been down for “unscheduled maintenance” only for civilian agencies for more than a month.

So if you have a .gov email address, you are out of luck.

But if you have a .mil email address, all is well and you can use the site to get training.

Fact 2: There is no timetable for FAITAS to come back online for civilian agencies. In the frequently asked questions on the FAITAS website, GSA seems to insinuate that the site will be down through February as it states, “If you are maintaining a certification and your continuous learning period is NOT due to expire before the end of February 2018, your request may not be processed, as priority will be granted to users with certifications whose CL Periods are ending within this timeframe.”

Fact 3: The Army, which runs the site governmentwide, and the General Services Administration, which runs the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI), are not saying much about what’s going on.

An Army Cyber Command spokesman offered this comment:

“Some Army Web services are currently not available due to maintenance and implementation of security upgrades. We are working as quickly as possible to complete the required upgrades and restore website access. Apart from that, I can’t offer greater specificity or detail.”

A GSA spokeswoman offered me a similar statement:

“The Federal Acquisition Institute Training Application System (FAITAS) is currently unavailable from the public domain; however the system remains open through the .mil network. The Federal Acquisition Institute is posting updates on FAITAS to FAI.gov and GSA has put several temporary solutions in place to ensure critical tasks can proceed until access to FAITAS is fully restored. Acquisition professionals should work through their agency career manager to address any critical needs.”

Fact 4: Civilian agency contracting officers and CORs are not necessarily feeling the impact of FAITAS being down, but the longer it’s down, the more people the outage will impact. Acquisition workers use FAITAS to sign up for training courses so they can keep their certifications and warrants up-to-date.

As one government acquisition professional told me, “The civilian government acquisition community is paralyzed from taking advantage of what FAITAS offers: Getting certifications, renewing certifications and the whole professionalization of the acquisition community is on hold. They are trying to do work around, but really FAITAS is the single source to get that done.”

The source, who requested anonymity because they didn’t get permission to talk to the media, said the work arounds GSA is offering include taking free classes at the Treasury Acquisition Institute or other government and private sector sources aren’t always at the level that more advanced acquisition workers need.

“You have to take so many hours to renew certification before the end of the expiration date of your certification. I think it’s around 40 hours,” he said. “So you need to take several different acquisition courses to make sure you are up to speed. If you don’t make sure the certifications are still viable, you lose it.”

For this acquisition professional, that is only part of the problem.

And then this brings us to the circumstantial part of the discussion.

The inferred evidence of what’s going with FAITAS easily leads us down the path of this being a cyber incident.

The lack of specific communication from the Army and GSA insinuate that there is something more going on than just “unscheduled maintenance” and “upgrades,” especially since FAITAS has been down for more than a month. IT experts say replacing hardware or upgrading software shouldn’t take this long, and if it was a technology problem, not a cyber problem, then why wouldn’t the Army and GSA be more forthcoming?

“Unplanned maintenance suggests they are hiding the truth — was it a critical security vulnerability that had to be fixed? Say so, but it takes a month to fix it? If it was a serious security breach, say so and tell us if Personally Identifiable Information was stolen, and, if so, what, how much and what are you going to do about it?” said the government acquisition worker. “Why is it taking so long to get it fixed? Why is there no target date for availability? Could some hacker have stolen the profiles of certified contracting professionals and use that for illegal purposes by acting, for example, as a contracting officer and gain access to other sensitive information? One can imagine lots of dangerous scenarios, beyond delayed training and certifications. It’s a Wizard of Oz moment when you’re not supposed to look at that man behind the screen. The silence about this is deafening and surprising it is being tolerated.”

And remember, federal law and policy requires agencies to report to the Office of Management and Budget and Congress all major cyber incidents within seven days of it being discovered. Emails to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asking about FAITAS were not returned. Other sources say OMB was not aware of any major cyber incidents at FAI.

At the same time, multiple sources in and out of government say FAITAS suffered some sort of cyber problem. Let me clear here, no one knows if it was a hack or just a critical vulnerability that the IT folks found and needed to close immediately. Sources say GSA and the Army are being “extremely tight lipped” about what’s really going on.

Even internal emails obtained by Federal News Radio do not offer any further insights, just the “unscheduled maintenance” rationale or that it’s a “systemwide outage.”

One cyber expert who is not familiar with FAITAS specifically, but is an government cyber expert more generally, said one theory is the site was hit by a distributed denial of service (DDOS) or other type of attack and the Army is whitelisting .mil address because they have an IP range for DoD and can confirm where visitors are coming from. But they are less certain about where the civilian agency employees are coming from because they don’t those IP addresses to whitelist.

Another cyber expert surmised if the FAITAS front end is just a common user interface and the back-end systems are split into two—one for the Defense Department and one for the civilian agencies. If  the civilian side had a cyber vulnerability that the Army is working to close, but not the .mil side could be a reason why DoD acquisition workers are unaffected by these problems.

The vendor that runs FAITAS, ASM Research, which is an Accenture subsidiary, referred all questions to GSA.

So that’s everything we know about FAITAS. All signs point to the fact the site is dealing with something more than “unscheduled maintenance.” If it was a cyber incident, the tens of thousands of contracting officer and contracting officer representatives deserve to know what happened and what is GSA and the Army doing to protect their data.

If the problem actually just a hardware or software problem, then the Army and GSA need to be more forthcoming and explain what’s going on.

If there is one thing agencies struggle to learn, getting ahead of the story is always better than being behind it.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


GSA to reshuffle technology service to send resources to IT modernization initiatives

The General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Service had a tumultuous run over the last 20 months. Over the course of its existence, TTS is on its third commissioner, has been brought under the Federal Acquisition Service and has seen an increasing amount of personnel turnover.

It looks as if 2018 will continue to be a volatile year for TTS.

Joanne Collins Smee, the deputy commissioner of FAS and the director of TTS, announced last week at an all-hands meeting that the organization will go through a reorganization focused on how to better serve the Trump administration’s IT modernization effort.

Sources who attended the meeting said Smee detailed an aggressive timeline to bring the centers of excellence effort and the 18F digital services organization closer together. The administration announced the CoE initiative in December as part of its IT modernization rollout.

GSA issued a requests for quotes across all five of the CoE areas —cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, service delivery and analytics and contact center — toward the end of 2017 to hire vendors to provide implementation planning services.

TTS’s  new request for quotes went out to a limited number of vendors to provide “strategic planning consulting services to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of an integrated TTS and CoE organization,” according to the RFQ, which a vendor source read to Federal News Radio.

The 12-page RFQ, released Jan. 29, is worth only about $150,000, so it falls under the Simplified Acquisition Threshold.

“It’s a really short turn around,” said one industry source, who is familiar with the RFQ. “They are trying to get ideas about how take all these resources in TTS and refocus them to deliver across these five areas of CoEs. The CoEs want to do the same things that have been going on for years. I think this goes back to TTS trying to staff the CoEs and no one volunteering to be on them so GSA asking now how do you staff these organizations?”

Under the solicitation, TTS wants a vendor to provide organizational design services, which includes hiring and implementation plans for bringing the CoE effort and 18F closer.

One source familiar with the RFQ doubted TTS can get all of this work under the RFQ done in four weeks or for $150,000.

Multiple emails to GSA seeking comment on the changes coming to TTS and a copy of the RFQ were not returned.

Sources say Smee is focused on the first CoE pilot at the Agriculture Department, and is seeking how best to take 18F resources and apply them to those challenges.

“Joanne said she wants to build up 18F, but likely it will be the technical expertise for the CoEs,” a source said. “It’s hard to say if they will bring in contractor or feds under term hires. Joanne made a comment about wanting to have 50 new technologists on board in the next few months. I’m not sure if she understands how government hiring. She also made comments about hiring business development folks. The reality is the federal process will hold up a lot of things that she wants to move forward on so she probably will end up staffing with contractors once she sees the challenges of hiring.”

TTS was under the governmentwide hiring freeze in the first part of 2017, and then it continued, even unofficially, until new leadership came on board for most of the rest of 2017. A source said many offices in TTS are behind in their hiring so there will be a big rush to fill open positions, which also could complicate Smee’s plans.

Sources also say GSA is expected to make the awards for Phase 1 of the CoE effort this week. The acquisition strategy detailed at the industry day in December said GSA would make awards by the end of January so they are delayed by about a week.

Sources also say GSA also named at least the initial lead managers of the CoEs:

Simchah Bogin will head up the customer experience center of excellence;

Jay Huie will lead the cloud adoption center;

Dan Pomeroy will be in charge of the IT infrastructure optimization effort;

Amira Boland and Phil Ashlock are co-leaders of the data services analytics;

Meghan Daly will be in charge of the contact center effort.

Phase 2 of the CoE initiative, which will focus on implementation of IT modernization efforts still is on tap for the June or July timeframe.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.

 


Advice for the new Federal CIO Suzette Kent from those who came before her

The White House finally named a new federal chief information officer on Jan. 19 after a year of waiting. Suzette Kent comes to the government with little or no background in the public sector and no clear information technology background, according to her LinkedIn profile.

And that may be a good thing in many regards. But at the same time, she has a steep learning curve of acronyms, the sometimes archaic procurement rules, and, of course, a 535-person board of directors, whose opinions change like the wind.

Federal News Radio asked those who came before Kent at the Office of Management and Budget for some insights, advice and words of wisdom as she takes on this new role. Here is some of what they told us:

WFED: Based on your experience what were some of the areas that you saw as your biggest learning curves when you became federal CIO?  How did you shorten the timeframe to learn what you needed to know?

Mike Howell, former deputy CIO and now senior director for the Institute for Innovation and Special Projects at the Industry Advisory Council-American Council for Technology:

“Learning how to function effectively in the nexus of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government (including the Government Accountability Office), interact with White House leaders, offices, and governance bodies (e.g. National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy), engage with OMB components (budget and resource management office program leaders), bridge technology and mission program communities, and engage agencies (including senior leaders, mission programs, and support function – CIOs, CAOs, CFOs and CHCOs), and the private sector. It is like trying to conduct a REALLY large orchestra of people who have not played together before to perform a complex, difficult piece of music.”

Tony Scott, former Federal CIO and currently the CEO of the Tony Scott Group:

“Fortunately [former OMB deputy CIO] Lisa Schlosser had put together a great primer on what OMB does, what the role of the CIO is, how we are organized and the current stuff we were working on. I got that a few weeks before I started and had a chance to bone up and understand a lot of that stuff. Then along with that primer came a bunch of question so even before I started I had a great start. I’m sure [current deputy CIO] Margie [Graves] has done same thing and will be helpful for Suzette coming in.

The stuff I was unprepared for was testifying before Congress. I had talked at board meetings, before audit committee, and at public meetings, but I didn’t come into the job with an understanding of being able to tell lawmakers ‘here’s what these things are and how they work.’ This was a case where OMB staff did a tremendous job with fake trial runs where you get asked tough and tricky questions. That prep was super helpful, and a learning that is unique to these kinds of roles.”

Tim Young, former OMB deputy CIO and currently a principal with Deloitte Digital:

“Understand how to influence change by using the budget process – both budget formulation and budget execution. While OMB controls budget formulation, Congress controls the enactment and you have to work with congressional appropriations committees before and during management reform agenda implementation. Even the most thoughtful strategies can fail without sufficient resources and authorization.”

Steve VanRoekel, former federal CIO:

“Exercise patience and focus understanding that things move a bit slower than the private sector. We showed that you can be successful and accomplish many things – like the U.S. Digital Service, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, PortfolioStat, our Open Data orders, our work on cloud computing and other reforms – but it takes a much different approach than the private sector.”

WFED: What’s the best advice you received about being federal CIO from others in or out of government?

Mark Forman, former administrator for e-government and currently global head, vice president and general manager, Public Sector, Unisys:

“You’re not doing your job until a secretary calls the OMB Director to get you fired for driving the agency too hard to change.”

Karen Evans, former administrator for e-government and currently head of the U.S. Cyber challenge:

“To reach out to both and industry/departments and agencies but especially oversight with Congress and listen.”

Tim Young:

“Focus on ‘getting it right’ vs. ‘being right.’ Some of your management reform initiatives will fall short of their objectives. Even the best-planned ideas can fail to achieve their envisioned outcomes. Acknowledge this along the journey, move on, and pay-it-forward instead of trying to salvage a futile political victory.

Implement reforms ‘with’ the agencies, not ‘to’ them. Some mandates will be required in the form of Executive Orders, budget guidance and policy memoranda, but first utilize the power of collaboration and transparency to build the trust and buy-in needed for enduring enterprise change.”

Mike Howell:

“Make time to consult, strategize, think and plan – don’t let the multitude of urgent, daily crises consume all of your capacity.”

Steve VanRoekel:

“The best advice I received was really about building great relationships from the start. If you fight or belittle the career staff or bring political views into your meetings with Congress, you will get very little done. Having empathy for the amazing women and men in the Federal service, inspiring them to bring their best to their work in service of the American people and going along on the journey with them is always a winning strategy.”

WFED: What was your biggest frustration about being federal CIO? What’s the biggest challenge you saw to being federal CIO?

Lisa Schlosser, former OMB deputy CIO and now an instructor at Georgetown University:

“The lack of real understanding of the business value of technology, and the difficulty in getting support for the modernization of systems and acquisition processes.”

Mark Forman:

“It was very frustrating when agency CFOs went around OMB to Congress to undercut administration strategy and shared services initiatives. Biggest challenge is too many players have legal authority putting them ‘in charge.’”

Tony Scott:

“My biggest frustration was the arcane set of rules that sometimes you feel imposed on you. Two specific ones were the inability to easily get unsolicited proposals and the Paperwork Reduction Act. In the private sector, you live and breathe every day on the supply community that you are involved with coming up with unsolicited ideas and you encourage them to get to know organization and put on their creative thinking caps. In the federal government because of the procurement process, it’s just not a vibrant process. In fact it’s hardly exercised at all, and when it is, it’s not a very well done process. Because of that we are missing out on tons of innovations. If we could figure out a way to reform that area, I think it would be hugely valuable, and it would turn on the creativity of those who serve the federal government.”

Karen Evans:

“Trying to move fast!! Ensuring the budget resources aligned with the implementation plans and measuring and demonstrating success.”

Tim Young:

“Deviating from status quo takes time and will always be met by some resistance. Recognize that someone (or a group of people) established status quo and getting them to adopt a new initiative or program takes time and substantial energy. Effectively navigating the federal bureaucracy requires focus, resilience, and purpose.”

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.

 


How many procurement regulations were finalized in 2017? The answer may surprise you

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Here’s an interesting trivia question for all you acquisition lovers in the government: How many rules did the Federal Acquisition Regulations Council finalize during the first year of the Trump administration?

Give it some thought. Did the FAR Council make any changes from Jan. 20 to Dec. 31, 2017?

The answer is: the FAR Council issued one final rule for the entire year.

It was the decision to reverse a previous FAR rule to implement the fair pay and safe workplace executive order.

Besides that, dozens of other proposed rules were basically on hold. Now some changes occured at the agency level, but those too were few and far between.

David Berteau, the president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, said the lack of changes to the FAR and even the FAR supplements at the agency level is both good and bad.

It’s good because contracting officers and contracting officer representatives don’t need to worry about learning and applying changes.

But at the same time, it’s bad because needed changes are taking so long to happen.

A perfect example of that is the General Services Administration’s long-awaited final rule letting agency customers develop task orders under the schedules program to include other direct costs (ODCs) or order level materials (OLMs).

Industry and agencies alike have been pushing GSA to change its rules to let costs not specifically identified in the contract, such as specialized tool or test equipment, computer services or travel, but are important for the final delivery of the product or service, be allowed on schedule contracts. For example, currently under the schedules program, an agency could buy a router for their network through a time-and-materials type of contract, but if the router needed another piece of software to work appropriately, it couldn’t be included in that task order.

Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, wrote that this change is a significant step forward for the schedules.

“Customer agencies and multiple-award schedule contractors now have even greater flexibility to seek, compete, award and perform commercial-based solutions to meet agency mission requirements,” Waldron wrote in a release. “The result drives increased opportunities, competition and access to innovation from the commercial marketplace through the MAS program, reducing unnecessary contract duplication.”

Alan Thomas, the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, said in a release that the final OLM rule marks another step forward in GSA’s continued efforts to modernize and transform the schedules.

“The addition of OLMs is good for government, industry and taxpayers. This much-needed important new acquisition tool provides our agency customers and industry partners with a streamlined, value-based solution that helps them meet their mission needs while saving time and money,” Thomas said. “GSA looks forward to continuing to work with our agency and industry partners through implementation to ensure a seamless transition.”

Nearly everyone is celebrating this change, but it took 17 months from proposal to completion, and it received only four comments. The final rule is basically the same as the proposed rule.

So this brings us back to the question, why, when there is near universal frustration with the federal acquisition system, are changes that would improve it taking so long?

Berteau said one obvious reason is the Trump administration’s new requirements to measure regulatory burden of a proposed rule.

“Agencies are testing out how well they can get analysis through the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in OMB,” he said. “I don’t know how much of a delay is not having a good process to measure the burden and cost benefit analysis. The predisposition of executive order is ‘don’t issue a new regulation even if they are regulations that agencies do want to put out.’”

As agencies have to develop new analytical processes and work with OIRA on how to document the burden, Berteau said that slowed down nearly every rule. And, no one on the outside has any visibility into those processes and how long they now take.

Neomi Rao, the administrator of OIRA, said on Friday that fiscal 2017 was a “banner year for regulatory reform.” Through the implementation of the “two-for-one” executive order, OIRA says agencies saved more than $8 billion in regulatory costs, or more than $570 million per year. In addition, Rao said agencies withdrew more than 15,000 planned rules.

While it may be easy to argue against some of those 15,000 planned rules, it’s more difficult to make the case against many of the procurement rules.

If you look at the semi-annual regulatory agenda the FAR Council issued on Jan. 12, among the 16 rules in the final stage, some are badly needed to improve the acquisition process. These include set-asides under multiple award contracts, effective communication between industry and government, task and delivery order protests and clarifications of requirements to justify sole source 8(a) contracts.

Berteau said the Trump administration’s review of regulations also gave some agencies such as the Defense Department the de facto approval not to implement provisions of the 2016 and 2017 Defense authorization bills.

He said the rule to implement limited use of lowest price, technically acceptable (LPTA) is one example of how DoD seems to be slow-rolling a provision in the law it may not agree with wholeheartedly.

“I can’t tell you DoD is deliberately not implementing that rule, but the net effect is that is what they are doing,” he said.

Berteau also is concerned that the lack of final rules is creating a backlog of sorts that will impact contracting officers and program folks alike. He said this is especially concerning around the Defense FAR supplement.

“We think DoD has a plan to roll out four proposed or final or interim rules per month,” he said. “That will be difficult for industry to comment on as it will be difficult for DoD to process those comments. We are still waiting for  rules from the 2017 NDAA around performance contract payments and settling undefinitized contract actions.”

Michael Fischetti, the executive director of the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), said there is good and bad to the delay in the rulemaking process.

“Contracting officers certainly would notice and so would contractors, as there is a lot of money for contract writing systems that automatically update. Over the last 12 months, nothing has changed with procurement even though people are not satisfied,” he said. “But at the same time, maybe the lack of new rules is a good opportunity for a pause to reflect on what is the right approach. Many times housekeeping does need to happen, but maybe more communication, more adoption of industry best practices and a review of socio-economic goals need to be looked at, and we need to figure out how to improve those areas.”

Fischetti added this dissatisfaction may be leading to the increased use of other transaction authorities (OTAs) by DoD and soon several civilian agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Federal Aviation Administration.

In short, OTAs let agencies go around the FAR and award “contracts” for prototypes or samples. Many times, the agency then can convert those “contracts” into long-term deals without any competition or oversight from auditors.

“OTAs are not a solution. There is a reason for the FAR and many people believe the FAR isn’t a problem. OTAs have  been around for a long time, and now it’s the du jour solution,” he said. “Many times there are  a lot of solutions looking for a problem to solve or solution that doesn’t support the problem. It’s about the quality of the workforce, people and leadership. It’s not that the government doesn’t need to be clean up on the regulations and make things more easily understandable, but the move away from the FAR is not a good thing.”

And this brings us back full circle — when there are necessary changes that aren’t made, agencies will find work-arounds and that’s not always a good thing for government and industry.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


Latest financial management shared services effort gives industry its shot

The challenges around shared services center as much on policy as they do on implementation. The government’s inability to update policies, some dating back to 1933, combined with the ever-difficult industry and agency communications have proved to be too much for a many shared services projects — see the Homeland Security Department as the most recent example, and several industry sources say the Veterans Affairs Department’s move to the Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center also may be on the rocks.

And this is why the latest attempt by the Trump administration to move agencies toward financial management shared services must address both sides of the equation.

The General Services Administration’s Unified Shared Services Management Office’s initiative to understand what is possible in the financial services market is part of its initial plan to address the industry-government communications challenges.

But without addressing the policy side at the same time, particularly the 2013 Office of Management and Budget memo on shared services, this effort is, once again, on the slippery slope toward failure.

The 5-year-old memo calls on agencies to perform an alternatives analysis of both federal and commercial shared services providers.

“Therefore, to leverage existing investments and infrastructure at FSSPs, agencies must consider, as part of their alternatives analysis, the use of a FSSP with respect to all new agency proposals for core accounting and mixed system upgrades,” the memo states. “Analysis should not be limited only to an evaluation of commercial SSPs. Instead, the preferred approach is for an agency to evaluate solutions offered by both FSSPs and commercial SSPs as part of a robust market research process.”

Experts say until that memo is rescinded or at least clarified, agencies tend to interpret that to mean they should consider federal shared service providers first, leaving industry in a support only role.

And it’s for this reason that GSA’s market research effort in February is facing more of an uphill challenge than it needs to as vendors may be hesitant to take part in industry day. GSA released a request for information on Jan. 17, looking for vendors to come demonstrate the latest in financial management services.

“This is an open invite for industry if they have a solution that meet our requirements,” said Beth Angerman, the executive director of the Unified Shared Services Management Office, during a press teleconference  last Thursday. “We are in the  research phase to better understand if there is a better, more prevalent role industry can play or not, based on the technologies and how they’re evolving. If industry is keeping up, it’s our opportunity to understand what opportunities they have and they can influence the path forward.”

Angerman said that does include any potential changes in policy.

“Industry can help develop the strategy going forward, so it will be advantageous for them to participate,” she said. “We have to learn from industry why we need to make a case for change.”

OMB is in the mood to relook at and update or get rid of policies altogether. So industry’s feedback on the current capabilities and trends is crucial.

For the industry day, first GSA is hosting a 90-minute virtual general session on Feb. 8 where the government “will discuss the current financial system solutions’ challenges in the federal government and the desired future state.”

Then, from Feb. 13 to Feb. 15, GSA will hold live demonstration days in Washington, D.C.

“We will have federal government representatives, including people from the CFO Council, the CIO Council and other representatives from agencies,” Angerman said. “In the RFI, we are asking industry to help us understand their solutions and how are they different than what the government has purchased and used before. How do we meet the expectations laid out by the administration in terms of understanding what software-as-a-service capabilities are available?”

The deadline to register for the live demonstration days is Jan. 31.

In the RFI, USSM outlined six parameters, including mobile friendly interfaces and the ability to support 2.5 million users, and five other capabilities, including the ability to adapt to changing requirements and success stories with other government or private sector customers, that it wants vendors to address in their responses and industry day presentations.

The fact that the USSM is even looking at potential private sector opportunities is a huge change from just a few years ago. Under the Obama administration, industry was openly relegated to support efforts and federal shared service providers were front and center.

But a combination of agency demand, continued struggles by federal providers around implementation and funding and the continued emergence of cloud computing forced the USSM to begin looking for other options.

As the Trump administration took office, the expansion of opportunities for the private sector grew. Both the cybersecurity executive order and the IT modernization strategy called on agencies to consider shared services in an assortment of areas.

Angerman said the market research and demonstration days will help the USSM decide what its next steps are and the role industry can play.

While the USSM is taking the first step for financial management, it’s further ahead with its plan to modernize how agencies receive payroll services.

OMB centralized the payroll providers across four federal providers in 2009.

But the USSM issued a draft request for quotes in December with an eye toward modernization using software-as-a-service. Comments on the draft RFQ closed Jan. 22.

Angerman said the financial management effort is different from the payroll initiative.

History and experience have shown that these shared services efforts are steeped in challenges so while the USSM has been spending the last few understanding what they are, unless OMB acts to make some specific updates, shared services will continue to face the same problems as previous attempts.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


Labor hires a government veteran, DHS losing another IT exec

A Bush administration veteran is returning to his roots. The Homeland Security Department is losing another IT executive. The comings and goings in the federal IT and acquisition communities never stop.

Jeff Koch, who worked at the Labor Department and at the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, is returning to Labor as the deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Office of Administration and Management.

Sources say Koch will start this week and will focus on performance management areas such as improving services to citizens.

Sources say there is still a lot to be determined about Koch’s role, but it’s part of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s plan to bring back political appointees with government experience.

Koch will work for Bryan Slater, the assistant secretary for administration and management and another Bush administration veteran. Slater previously worked at the Small Business Administration and the White House in the mid-2000s.

Labor still has several top political positions unfilled, including the deputy secretary, the assistant secretary for policy, the director of the Office of Public Engagement and the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Koch started his executive branch career at Labor as the associate chief information officer working on among other things the Benefits.gov e-government initiative.

He then moved to OMB as an e-government portfolio manager, where he focused on the government-to-government projects such as e-payroll, e-travel and the electronic official personnel file (eOPF).

Since the end of the Bush administration, Koch worked for several government contractors including IBM and YRCI.

Over at DHS, Jeff Eisensmith, the chief information security officer, announced he is retiring after more than 32 years in government.

Multiple sources confirm that Eisensmith’s last day will be at the end of April.

A DHS spokesman said they had no personnel announcements at this time.

Eisensmith has been CISO for five years and previously worked in a similar role for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement directorate from 2007 to 2012.

He began his federal career in 1985 with the FBI and took a stint in industry working for BAE Systems.

During his time as CISO, Eisensmith led DHS’ return to respectability in the cybersecurity community.

After repeated internal cyber struggles in the mid-2000s, DHS turned the corner with new CIO leadership and Eisensmith complimented those efforts by implementing, among other things, a new cybersecurity maturity model that focuses on risk management.

In the Reporter’s Notebook earlier this month, we told you Mike Hermus, the DHS chief technology officer, is leaving March 2. We know now that Kevin Wince will be the acting DHS CTO. Wince has been executive director for enterprise architecture since June. He came over to DHS from the General Services Administration, where he was the chief enterprise architect.

Sources confirmed that DHS plans to fill the CTO role as quickly as possible.

Finally, Paul Grassi, one of the last employees in the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) and a senior standards and technology adviser at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, saw his term appointment end and headed to the private sector.

Grassi left NIST in January to join Easy Dynamics, a small business in the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program. Easy Dynamics is a women-owned small business focused on application development and cloud computing.

NIST announced in 2016 that it was shifting NSTIC to the Trusted Identities Group so Grassi being one of the last NSTIC employees is not altogether surprising.

He said the future of the NSTIC pilots and initiatives is not 100 percent clear and that is something to watch over the next year or so.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


Secretary’s ‘OneUSDA’ vision rings hollow to some in light of new telework policy

Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue has laid out a new vision for his department called, OneUSDA.

“We are one family working together to serve the American people. And if we are to fulfill our mission — to make USDA the most effective, most efficient, most customer focused department in the entire federal government — we must function as one single team,” Perdue wrote to about 100,000 employees during the first week of 2018.

But Perdue’s words are ringing hollow to many USDA employees after he decided to make what some call arbitrary changes to the agency’s much admired and recognized telework program.

USDA’s new policy requires employees to be in the office four days a week, letting them telework only one day per pay period. The old policy allowed almost unlimited telework and was a key piece of the agency’s initiatives around work-life balance and reducing its real estate footprint.

For many USDA employees, the change flies in the face of creating OneUSDA, and Perdue’s focus on family and efficiency.

“USDA [is] cutting down on telework for all employees — Wow!! Talk about using a hand-grenade to remove a hang-nail,” wrote one USDA employee to Federal News Radio. “This story reeks of poor government decision process. Instead of using data and analysis to get to root causes, just hammer the entire department with severe reduction in telework, so they alienate the staff and eliminate any possible real estate savings from desk sharing or hoteling.”

Federal News Radio heard from more than a half dozen employees worried about the changes to the telework policy.

“People are complaining about suddenly, without warning, having to find pre-school and post-school baby sitters, changing (if possible) trade-off arrangements with spouses, finding car pools and the costs of commuting,” wrote another employee. “Many feel dismissed and ambushed, and are looking for jobs elsewhere.”

USDA Fast Facts
Number of employees 97,289
Number eligible for telework 58,635
Number of employees teleworking in FY 2016 32,356
Percentage of eligible employees teleworking in FY 2016 55%
Percentage of employees teleworking in FY 2016
33%
Three or more days 9,623
One-to-two days 8,243
Situational 14,490

Source: OPM 2016 Telework Report to Congress

While these and other employees are ringing the alarm bells, the fact is Perdue is well within his right as the secretary to make the changes to the telework policy. He is not forbidding telework, but limiting its usage. And to be clear, telework is not a right, it’s a privilege.

“The appropriateness of the amount of telework suitable for eligible employees is ultimately a determination reserved for supervisors and managers. Decisions as to frequency of telework participation is determined by the nature of the position, duties and responsibilities, supervisory relationship, and mission criteria,” the new policy states. “When telework is used to address space availability restrictions, such as in the use of hoteling or desk sharing, a mission area, agency or staff office head may approve telework exceeding 2 days a pay period on a case-by-case basis. When telework is used to ensure mission functions continue to be performed during a wide range of emergencies, including localized acts of nature, accidents, and technological or attack-related emergencies, a mission area, agency or staff office head may approve telework exceeding two days a pay period on a case-by-case basis.”

One USDA official, who requested anonymity because they didn’t get permission to speak to the press, said while they see the benefits and drawbacks of telework, Secretary Perdue initiated a major reorganization effort that the old concepts of mission and success are changing for many people.

“I can make the argument that it doesn’t matter where you work, but I also can make the argument that in-person teams matter, especially when you are reorganizing the agency,” the official said. “At times it feels like we are so accommodating that we don’t get anything done because we shy away from making a tough call because someone will not like it or not feel included. At times it feels like pendulum has gone too far where there is too much carrot and not enough stick. Maybe this is too much stick and not enough carrot, but we are being asked to increase the focus of driving mission and on customers. That is hard work. This doesn’t happen successfully in the federal government if the boss isn’t saying this is what we want to do and drives hard toward that goal. Usually in the federal government things start to fail when they get hard.”

A USDA spokesman said in an email to Federal News Radio the decision to change the telework policy comes from feedback from employees reflecting longstanding concerns about the previous policy.

“This went to mission area human capital officers and agency heads, who circulated it internally through their program staff. It was also submitted to the national unions for their comments,” the spokesman said. “USDA’s telework policy is designed to be responsible to the taxpayers and responsive to the customers who depend on our services. It is also respectful of our fellow employees who come to work each day.”

Some changes may be drastically different

The change that Perdue is leading isn’t easy and the old adage that “change is hard” definitely applies. Perdue seems to recognize that change management is necessary in his message to employees from early January.

“So every change we detail today and in the weeks and months ahead is to make us function as one single team. I will be forthright with you. Some of these changes may be drastically different than the old way of doing things, and that’s OK.” Perdue wrote to staff. “All of them point to our first strategic goal: to ensure our programs are delivered efficiently, effectively and with integrity.”

The problem for several employees and unions representing workers is the change is being done to, instead of done with, employees.

Jeff Streiffer, the immediate past secretary treasurer and spokesperson for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1106, said the motivation behind the policy change is unclear.

“We were involved in the consultation process for local and national AFGE as well as some of the other national labor unions representatives,” he said an interview. “When USDA rolled out its draft telework rewrite to the national AFGE about 2-to-4 weeks ago, we made comments on the idea of reducing the number of telework days to four per pay period or twice a week. We advised them it was too restrictive and not warranted. We received a response that they disagreed and that’s all the response really said. So when the final revision rolled out, it was more restrictive than four days.”

Streiffer said AFGE now is investigating whether USDA violated the National Consultation Rights statute under the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

“We didn’t have notice that they were going that far with the new policy. If their intent was two days then it was a bad faith bait-and-switch,” he said.

Streiffer said he couldn’t go in to any further details about possible legal action against USDA.

Stan Painter, chairman for AFGE national joint council of food inspection locals and a USDA employee for 32 years, said the new policy is a step backward.

“There was no communication. It was like this was it take it or leave it, and it came across as a dictatorial decision and just enough to leave telework in place,” he said. “There are managers that I deal with that telework all the time and they are more responsive when they telework than when they were in the office. When they were in the office it was from this time to another time. But when they telework I could get a hold of them more easily.”

Another USDA employee who works as a reasonable accommodation coordinator, said they had heard about a month ago of a rumored change.

“Since telework can be a reasonable accommodation employees request, I heard my business was about to boom,” the employee said. “Everyone who wants more than one day a week can get it if they can come up with any disability. It’s not that hard to be qualified as someone with disability. The American with Disabilities Act 2008 amendments made it easier to qualify if you have a have medical condition that substantially limits major life activity. But substantial has been gutted so if you have back or leg impairments, that counts. So many people have bad backs or bad knees and we need to take commutes in consideration when we look at reasonable accommodation, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.”

The employee added, whether or not someone needs reasonable accommodation, reducing the number of telework days to no more than one per week is a major disruption for a lot of people.

Award-winning telework program

The decision to reduce the number of telework days leaves current and former USDA officials confused even further considering the agency has been a model for public and private sector companies.

Forbes named USDA to its top 500 places to work in 2015, in part because of its telework policy.

“When I was at USDA, we were dealing with 16 different organizations with 3,000 different physical office space locations across the country. Our goal was to tie telework to reductions in offices that were not utilized or less utilized. USDA was trying to think strategically how to tie telework to important objectives so it will be interesting to see how they accomplish this transition,” said Mika Cross, a federal workplace expert who helped shape USDA’s workplace policies under the former administration and is now at a different agency. “The push was to empower supervisors to make decisions about their team. They should be able to determine what works for their team based on the job and mission. We really worked hard across the government not to implement a one-size-fits-all approach for telework. The goal was to empower the supervisors and leaders to make decisions based on job suitability and performance, and employee suitability.”

Cross said the change in telework also will impact transit subsidies, office supplies and morale.

Additionally, USDA has saved millions of dollars over the past five years because of telework.

“In a time where the government is being asked to think and act more like a business, telework/remote and flexible work offers agencies a strategic, competitive edge on retaining and engaging top performers who we must be able to keep around in order to deliver the most important services to the American public whom we serve,” she said. “All the best private companies/organizations understand that workplace policies like telework are a win/win for both the organization and its employees.”

Streiffer said in his San Francisco office of USDA’s general counsel he’s worried that changing the telework policy could push good people out the door.

“We have highly trained and normally highly paid white-collar professionals like attorneys who trade a more lucrative private sector career to go in to public service because we believe we can have a better work-life balance,” he said. “When those are scaled back, then we lose the ability to attract and retain the type of people who can excel type of services to public.”

The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey also proves out that telework is a win-win for both employees and management.

The Office of Personnel Management reported in its 2017 Telework Report to Congress that the 2016 FEVS data shows that employees felt teleworkers were held more accountable, had better engagement, retention and were encouraged to be innovative.

Others are concerned by cutting telework as a perk, its USDA and the administration’s way of reducing the workforce through attrition instead of buyouts or more harsh tactics like layoffs.

One federal official said USDA and other agencies who may want to use this tactic should be careful because many times the best people are the ones that end up leaving.

“There is a sense that change is happening to feds and not with feds. If you remember the American public and agencies were asked to give suggestions to reorganize the government, and no one ever heard back about those plans and their suggestions. Agencies never closed the feedback loop,” the official said. “With something like that you have a responsibility to close that loop. In any agency you have no idea what was put forth and what wasn’t unless you were working directly on the reorganization plans.”

AFGE’s Painter said USDA should’ve taken a more measured approach to this change.

“They should’ve run a pilot and done a study and talked about customer and workers’ satisfaction after completing a pilot,” AFGE’s Painter said. “Then they could’ve looked at what they needed to do. But that wasn’t the case. They just said this is it.”

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.


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