- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2003

During the 1990s, many federal agencies gave up trying to recruit the best and brightest — or even the pretty good and fairly sharp — as the government downsized and dot-coms dangled lots of lures. The dot-coms got not only information-technology experts, but also up-and-coming lawyers, economists and analysts.

But times have changed. Now the federal government — even with the push to privatize operations — is becoming the employer of choice for Generation X potential superstars who realize you can’t eat or pay the rent with stock options.

Federal agencies, eager to correct “skills imbalances” that resulted from massive downsizing in the 1990s and upcoming retirements, are dusting off all kinds of little-used perks to attract and keep top people. They range from such simple things as business casual dress codes and the promise of telecommuting to such tangibles as cash awards, bonuses, relocation payments and helping students retire as much as $6,000 of college debt annually.

Leading the parade is an unlikely federal operation, which most newscasters misidentify and most Americans associate with a bullpen full of auditors with green eyeshades. But the where-it’s-at agency is, in fact, the General Accounting Office, which didn’t hire anyone for a four-year period during the 1990s.

Now the GAO is one of the most innovative employee-oriented government operations, even as the traditional leader of the pack — the Defense Department — wants to transform itself into a more businesslike and less civil-service-oriented operation.

At the Federal Dispute Resolution (FDR) Conference in Orlando, Fla., last week, the GAO became the agency to imitate and an alternative to the tough-love management style that the Defense Department is eager to adopt.

Last year, GAO ranked second (behind only the State Department) in giving student loan help (averaging about $3,400) to nearly 200 workers. The congressional watchdog agency (with about 2,000 Washington-based staffers) also gave individual and group cash awards, bonuses and a variety of other legal but seldom-used financial pats on the back.

The GAO operation was one of the hits of the FDR, which for the past 18 years has been the place for government workers and experts whose job it is to save the taxpayers’ money and improve productivity by training labor and management how to resolve conflicts that take up thousands of hours each year in government offices.

Conference Chairman G. Jerry Shaw said the purpose of the session — which drew 1,400 participants, trainers and vendors — is to minimize the number of issues that can grow into costly (to the taxpayers) “federal cases” that cut into productivity.

The emphasis on making more federal agencies the first choice of top college graduates and the career choice of in-place feds should be good news for feds who can avoid the privatization knife that is carving up such agencies as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and, soon, major parts of the Department of Health and Human Services.

An FDR attendee pointed to layoffs and take-backs in the private sector — including news that pilots of two major airlines are bailing out early to get pension payments in lump sums — as presenting a golden opportunity for the government to become the employer of choice.

“It’s not just that we are getting better, and we have the reputation for stability,” he said. “It also helps that every day, either on the front page or in the business section, you read about another corporate rip-off of stockholders and longtime employees.

“While we are getting better, the private-sector competition is getting worse,” he said. “Five years ago, my children laughed at the idea of going into government. Today, one works for the Transportation Security Administration and the others have applied for half a dozen government openings.”

Don’t hold your breath

Lobbyists representing feds, postal workers and retirees expect a tough fight after Labor Day on a half-dozen bills that would improve the financial status and health insurance of active and retired feds. They’ve laid the groundwork for major improvements. Unfortunately, they were dealing with the compassionate side of Congress. Now they must run the gantlet of the bean counters who also have a job to do. Up for grabs are bills that would do the following:

• Allow feds when they retire (and get less money) to continue to pay health insurance premiums with pretax dollars. That “premium conversion” perk saves the typical civil servant $300 to $500 a year. But the tax code must be changed before retirees can benefit. Lots of co-sponsors have promised to vote for the plan, but the bill must get through congressional budget planners and appropriators who see it as a huge revenue drain to the government.

• Boost Social Security spousal benefits from 0 percent to 100 percent of the amount promised to people (such as retired civil servants and schoolteachers) who lose their spousal/survivor Social Security benefits because of the Offset formula that wipes out most of those benefits for most eligibles.

• Boost monthly earned Social Security benefits as much as $300 for feds who get a government pension but who also worked long enough in the private sector to qualify for Social Security. Under the current Windfall formula, their Social Security benefits are reduced sharply unless they spent 30 years paying into the system. Bills that would repeal Windfall as well as Offset have a huge number of co-sponsors, but that doesn’t mean they will get past tax writers whose responsibility is to increase , not reduce, government revenue.

• Congress will have a make-or-break vote on the Defense Department plan to “transform” its personnel rules from the 100-year-old civil-service model to a corporate-style Pentagon. The House has approved a plan giving the department much of what it wants. The Senate version is much milder and is preferred by federal unions and fed-friendly politicians.

Many feds, eager for action on premium conversion and the Windfall and Offset rules, said it’s just a matter of shaking the congressional tree hard enough to get results. What they don’t realize, but should be aware of, is that most of the shaking that will work has taken place. Dealing with appropriations committees and with the congressional finance and ways and means committees entrusted with tax laws is a much trickier business.

Mike Causey, senior editor at FederalNewsRadio.com, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or [email protected].

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