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News Briefs: Oct. 29

Oct. 28, 2012 - 02:22PM   |  
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Panetta lays out 4 priorities for Congress

Before the end of the year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants the lame-duck Congress to act on four critical items: Avert mandatory defense spending cuts; pass Pentagon policy and appropriations bills; pass cybersecurity legislation; and confirm generals nominated for two top military posts.

Leading Panetta’s list for lawmakers is dealing with $500 billion in defense spending cuts over the next decade — known as sequestration — scheduled to begin Jan. 2. Panetta has been lobbying against these cuts all year.

“There are only 70 days until that happens, and Congress is certainly on the clock when it comes to that potential sequestration occurring,” Panetta said during an Oct. 25 briefing at the Pentagon.

Congress is in a month-and-a-half-long recess to campaign for the Nov. 6 elections.

As for pending legislation, versions of the 2013 Defense authorization bill have been approved by the Senate and House Armed Services committees. The full House has passed its version, while the Senate has not voted on its version.

The House also has passed a version of the 2013 Defense appropriations bill. However, the Senate has not voted on a measure approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

In addition, Panetta called for Congress to pass new cybersecurity legislation, which lawmakers attempted to complete this past summer.

Panetta also called on Congress to confirm Marine Gen. John Allen as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford to replace Allen as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

IG recommends BRAC for Energy labs

The Energy Department should create a commission to recommend reorganization of its network of laboratory and technology facilities, the department’s inspector general said in a report last week.

The network — including 16 Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, 13 science laboratories, two naval propulsion laboratories and three defense-related facilities — has remained largely unchanged for more than a half-century, according to the IG.

The recommendation for a commission similar the Defense Department’s Base Closure and Realignment commissions is included in the IG’s overview of the Energy Deparment’s leading management challenges for fiscal 2013.

In the new report, the IG also listed cybersecurity, human capital management and nuclear waste disposal among key department challenges.

Recommended: Chief management officers

All large agencies should have chief management officers serving fixed-year terms, a panel of experts recommended in a report released last week.

The jobs would be filled by career Senior Executive Service members with the goal of providing sustained and effective oversight of information technology system purchases and other major initiatives. While the report did not suggest a specific term length, former Commerce Department official Alan Balutis, one of the authors, said in a phone interview that it should be at least six years.

The report, which examined IT and open-government issues, was released as part of the Memos to National Leaders project, a joint effort of the American Society for Public Administration and National Academy of Public Administration that focuses on the challenges facing the next president and Congress.

Army to have electronic personnel records in a year

All Army civilian employees will be able to look up their personnel records online by October 2013, an official said last week at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting in Washington.

Barbara Panther, director of the Army’s Civilian Human Resources Agency, said that Army civilians in Europe and Asia can already access their records online, and the rest will gain access to their electronic Official Personnel Folder — or eOPF — records this year.

Moving personnel records and other HR functions online is a logical step, Panther said, since people are used to shopping, banking and booking travel reservations over the Internet.

“Employees want to be able to take care of their own civilian HR functions in the virtual workplace — any place, anywhere, any time,” Panther said.

The Army finished digitizing 300,000 personnel folders in September, she said.

Scientists, engineers push back on travel cuts

Research and engineering groups are decrying proposed legislation that would severely cut agency conference and travel spending.

In a Sept. 10 letter to lawmakers and Obama administration officials, four professional associations representing science, technology and engineering specialists said proposed bills to cut travel and conference spending will curtail the ability of agencies and scientists to meet and exchange research and ideas.

The associations are: Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; U.S. Public Policy Council of the Association for Computing Machinery; Computing Research Association; and Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

“Government researchers — as well as researchers funded by the government, and the program managers who determine funding — need to be able to participate in these effects,” the groups wrote.

The pending legislation — the GSA Act, the Data Act and the 21st Century Postal Reform Act — would all limit conference spending by agencies and put in place detailed reporting requirements for any conference spending.

The bills were introduced in response to an April 2 General Services Administration inspector general report detailing lavish and wasteful spending at an $823,000 2010 conference in Las Vegas.

“We believe that existing oversight and review measures for scientific and technical conferences meet the spirit, if not the letter, of the proposed restrictions,” the organizations wrote.

Senators oppose Treasury move

The Treasury Department should cancel its plan to move 450 employees from its Financial Management Service facility in Hyattsville, Md., to Parkersburg, W.Va., Maryland’s senators said in an Oct. 24 letter to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin said Treasury did not have the authority to move the employees because it did not specify in its new lease prospectus submitted to Congress that FMS would be moving out of its current facility.

The House committee in charge of approving leases has also not approved the move, according to the senators. The House and the Senate approve new leases proposed by the General Services Administration — which handles Treasury Department leasing.

The senators wrote that only 10 percent to 15 percent of the Treasury employees would be able to make the move to the new location. “We are on the side of cost savings, but not at the expense of these workers” who would not move, the senators wrote.

IG finds flawsin VA data security

The Veterans Affairs Department is not effectively managing or securing sensitive health data it shares with partnering universities and research organizations, according to an Oct. 23 inspector general report.

VA has not properly secured network connections through which it shares medical and patient information, the report said. It also does not have an accurate inventory of the data exchanged, where information is hosted or the classification levels of the data.

The report found instances where VA medical centers and co-located research facilities had unsecured electronic and hard-copy data containing unauthorized information, veteran names, Social Security numbers and protected information.

“VA data exchanged with research partners were at risk of unauthorized access, loss, and disclosure,” the report said.

VA agreed with the IG’s recommendations to create a model for protecting data exchanged with outside organizations, to ensure research organizations meet security standards for protecting data, and to improve security network interconnections.

Agencies identify $2.5B in IT savings

Agencies expect to save $2.5 billion over the next three years by consolidating duplicative information technology systems, buying in bulk and eliminating failing IT projects.

Those savings were identified using a new approach — called PortfolioStat — where officials review spending for resources such as email and desktop computers in search of duplicative investments and opportunities to consolidate projects, Jeffrey Zients, acting Office of Management and Budget director, said in a blog post last week.

“Agencies identified 98 opportunities to consolidate or eliminate commodity IT areas, ranging from the consolidation of multiple email systems across an agency to the reduction of duplicative mobile or desktop contracts,” Zients said. OMB has not publicly released a list of those opportunities.

Projected savings, according to Zients, include:

• $376 million over three years at the Department of Homeland Security by purchasing IT infrastructure in bulk.

• $59 million at the Social Security Administration by buying computers in bulk.

• $90.3 million at the Treasury Department by consolidating key financial management systems.

TSA to fire, suspend 44 at Newark airport

The Transportation Security Administration plans to fire 25 employees and suspend 19 others who failed to follow baggage screening procedures at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

Using hidden cameras, TSA investigators found that screeners in a private screening room failed to physically search bags flagged during X-ray screenings and that supervisors did not provide adequate oversight, according to TSA. Supervisors and managers are among those being disciplined.

The agency fired eight employees for similar problems in June. In total, the disciplinary actions at Newark amount to the largest number TSA has taken at a single airport since the agency was created in 2001.

“The decision … reaffirms our strong commitment to ensure the safety of the traveling public and to hold all our employees to the highest standards of conduct and accountability,” the agency said in a statement.

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