- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Uncle Sam’s days as a passive recruiter of talent for job vacancies and as the nation’s cheapskate when it comes to providing golden parachutes to early retirees may be numbered.

Instead of waiting for applicants, the government is considering a pilot program that would allow some agencies, on a limited basis, to aggressively recruit candidates interested in public service.

A second proposal, being kicked around by federal CHCOs (chief human capital officers) would be to bring the government’s buyout program into the 21st century.

Feds who are encouraged to retire or resign, so that agencies can rebalance or trim their work forces, currently are paid a maximum of $25,000 (more like $17,000 after deductions). That price was set in 1993 when cars, food, rent and just about everything else cost a lot less.

There has been scattered talk, for years, about raising the amount of the buyouts, but it’s been mostly talk. Now the CHCOs — who are the status equivalent of personnel officers on steroids — are looking at ways to woo even better people into government and to make it financially rewarding for those whose skills are less in demand to depart with dignity.

The idea of a military-style, aggressive recruiting campaign (as in “Join the State Department and see the world,” or the Treasury Department, “where you can literally make money”) is to bring the government to the attention of idealistic young people who want to serve their country.

One CHCO described it as “an updated version of the Peace Corps vision.” Only these would be public-administration program graduates and information-technology specialists.

Bigger buyouts, and the idea of paying money to make federal recruiting efforts more aggressive and widespread, would have to be run by Congress first.

Most federal agencies are swamped with job applicants, but they would like to expand their searches and — like the military — are eager to get people who see public service as a calling, not just a safe job.

Buyouts (known in government lingo as VSIPs for voluntary separation incentive payments) have value for two groups of feds: those who get them and those who keep their jobs in agency downsizing.

At least one quasi-federal agency got permission from Congress to give substantially higher buyouts to some of its employees. But the agency was told to keep quiet about the buyouts and other perks its employees enjoy that aren’t available to other civil servants.

Defense plans to offer 25,000 buyouts between now and Sept. 30, and it probably will offer another 25,000 in the fiscal year that follows. Other federal agencies will offer buyouts too, but they will be of the $25,000 variety. It could be a long wait for the amount to be raised, but for feds who are in their late 40s and early 50s, it is something to look forward to.

Legislative outlook

The good news for feds and retirees is this: the record number of co-sponsors rounded up last year on bills to boost Social Security benefits of retired feds and give retirees a health insurance tax break, carried over into the current year.

The bills are still alive and have enough co-sponsors to assure approval — if the powers that be would clear them through the legislative process.

The bad news is that the cost of the bills worries congressional leaders of both parties, who are looking for ways to boost — not decrease — tax revenue.

Because of the cost, and the preoccupation with the November elections, odds are against the “premium conversion” bill that would let retirees pay their health care premiums with pretax dollars, and against modifying the so-called “windfall” and “offset” formulas.

Windfall can reduce by $300 per month the Social Security benefit of a longtime fed retired under the Civil Service Retirement System. Offset can wipe out the spousal or survivor Social Security benefit of a CSRS retiree, or teacher or other public employees.

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

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