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News Briefs: May 20, 2013

May. 19, 2013 - 01:33PM   |  
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GAO: Effort falling short for data consolidation

Federal agencies have closed 420 data centers and aim to shutter more than 500 others by December 2015, but plans to save billions of dollars through the consolidation effort so far appear to be falling short.

The Government Accountability Office revealed in a May 14 report that the Federal Data Consolidation Initiative remains 285 centers short of the Office of Management and Budget goal.

More problematic, however, is that OMB hasn’t figured out a way to track cost savings, GAO found.

“The lack of information makes it uncertain whether the $3 billion in savings is achievable by the end of 2015,” GAO noted in the report.

GAO recommended annual tracking and reporting on key data center consolidation performance measures, such as the size of data centers being closed and cost savings to date. The federal chief information officer, Steve Van Roekel, agreed with the recommendation, but declined to say in the report whether he agreed with another GAO recommendation to extend the time frame for reaching data center consolidation cost savings past 2015.

VA orders overtime for claims processors

The Veterans Affairs Department is again requiring disability benefits claims processors to work overtime in hopes of cutting a claims backlog more quickly.

Under the policy announced last week, processors at 56 regional benefits offices will have to put in at least 20 hours of overtime per month through the end of the fiscal year in September.

The department wants to provide veterans with claims decisions “as quickly and accurately as possible,” Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits, said in a news release. “We need to surge our resources now to help those who have waited the longest and end the backlog.”

As of May 11, the number of pending claims stood at 843,100, almost 567,000 of which fell in the backlog category because they were more than 125 days old. The last round of mandatory overtime came between February and May of last year.

VA officials don’t have an estimate on how much the extra work will cost in this instance, but they plan on covering the expense out of the department’s existing budget, spokesman Randy Noller said.

Report calls for increased SSA staff, funding

The Social Security Administration’s “excellent reputation for public service” is at risk because funding and staff have failed to keep pace with a growing workload, a new report says.

This fiscal year, SSA’s workforce is about the same size as in 2007, according to the report by the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, made up of national and state organizations opposed to cuts in the popular benefit program.

Last year, the agency’s $11.5 billion administrative budget was more than $1 billion below the Obama administration’s request. The volume of retirement and survivors claims has meanwhile climbed 11 percent over the past two years, while the number of disability benefit claims increased 27 percent during the same time, according to the report.

But SSA managers expect the agency’s workforce, which numbered about 64,500 as of December, to drop by roughly 2,000 this year. The agency has also reduced the hours that its approximately 1,200 field offices are open to the public.

For 2014, SSA needs at least $12.3 billion in administrative funding to keep up with inflation, make up for lost staff and continue efforts to reduce disability claims backlogs, the report says.

IG: Afghanistan overtaxes U.S. contractors

Afghanistan has slapped U.S.-funded contractors working on reconstruction efforts with nearly $1 billion in taxes since 2008, often in spite of clear tax exemption agreements, a government watchdog has found.

Complicating matters, U.S. contracting officers often don’t understand Afghanistan’s tax laws, resulting in improper payouts to contractors for taxes, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction revealed in report Tuesday.

“It’s disturbing that the Afghan government is targeting American contractors with unjust taxes and intimidation,” IG John Sopko said in a statement. “It’s even more disturbing that U.S. agencies are letting it happen — all at the expense of American taxpayers, who have already shouldered a heavy burden on Afghan reconstruction. This needs to end.”

Overall, the report found the Afghan Ministry of Finance levied about $921 million in taxes and penalties on 43 contractors. About $93 million came from a corporate income tax category that U.S. and Afghan officials agreed ought to be exempt.

Meanwhile, contractors appear to be passing along the cost to the government by adjusting their bids to account for the increased tax costs.

OMB nominee calls for tighter management

President Obama’s choice for deputy budget director underscored the need for tighter management at a confirmation hearing last week.

During a period of fiscal challenges, a key focus “has got to be making our government more efficient and more effective,” Brian Deese told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Obama nominated Deese, previously a top White House economic aide, last month for the post of deputy budget director at the Office of Management and Budget.

If confirmed, he would replace Heather Higginbottom, who left in February for a job at the State Department.

GSA IG faults discontinued bonus program

The General Services Administration failed to follow proper procedures in awarding $160,000 in Senior Executive Service bonuses from fiscal 2009 to 2011.

Seventy-one SES employees were paid a total of $70,200 in peer-awarded bonuses and 26 more were given other bonuses, according to a GSA inspector general report released last week. Under the peer-awarded system, SES employees could cast votes for co-workers with each vote equal to $100 for criteria such as “who relishes and champions change?”

One SES employee received $3,200 in these types of awards. The inspector general said in its report that GSA failed to provide documentation for many of the awards.

GSA has since discontinued the program, according to the agency response to the report.

Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini also slashed SES bonuses by 85 percent in 2012.

Moniz confirmed to head Energy Department

Nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz won unanimous Senate confirmation last week to head the Energy Department.

The 97-0 vote came a little more than two months after President Obama nominated Moniz, a teacher and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to replace outgoing Secretary Steven Chu.

This will be Moniz’s second tour at Energy; he served as undersecretary at the department from 1997 to 2001.

Online toolkit to promote union input in decisions

The federal government plans to create an online toolkit to encourage managers to give unions more input before agency workplace decisions are made.

Unions have been dissatisfied for years with their lack of “pre-decisional involvement” in management decisions.

Despite the Obama administration’s orders to bring employees into the loop early on through partnership forums, unions say that, at many agencies, front-line decisions are made before management comes to labor.

A National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations committee last week recommended posting training materials, best practices, webinars and other resources on the partnership council’s website explaining what pre-decisional involvement is, when it should be used, how it works, and other information.

McCaskill: Free up access to SSA death list

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wants the Social Security Administration to stop charging other agencies for access to its death records database because it is a key tool in heading off government payments to the deceased.

The information is intended “to keep money from going out the door that shouldn’t be going out the door,” McCaskill said at a hearing on improper payments. “We should be falling all over ourselves — no matter what part of government we are — to make sure this list is everywhere.”

The database, which is formally known as the Death Master File, is used by Social Security officials to prevent Social Security benefit payments to dead people.

But by law, the agency has to be reimbursed when providing the data to other agencies unless it’s getting something in return, Marianna LaCanfora, acting deputy Social Security commissioner for retirement and disability policy, said at the hearing.

Army launches $7B energy contract

Five companies have been pre-qualified to build and maintain geothermal energy projects for the Defense Department, under the first phase of a $7 billion Army contract.

The contract will make it easier and faster for DoD installations to enter into so-called “power purchase agreements” — under which companies pay for and maintain renewable energy projects in exchange for set energy payments over time — by allowing installations to choose from companies pre-qualified and vetted by the Army and Army Corps of Engineers.

The companies are:

* Constellation NewEnergy Inc.

* ECC Renewables LLC.

* Enel Green Power North America Inc.

* LTC Federal LLC.

* Siemens Government Technologies Inc.

The next rounds of the contract will focus on solar, wind and biomass energy projects and will be finalized throughout 2013, according to the Army

Obama orders gender pay-gap study

The White House has ordered agencies to study ways to narrow the pay gap between men and women in the federal government.

In a memo May 10, President Obama gave acting Office of Personnel Management Director Elaine Kaplan 180 days to study whether changes to the General Schedule classification system would narrow the pay gap, to propose guidance on how to be more transparent on starting salaries, and to recommend additional administrative or legislative changes that would narrow the pay gap.

According to the Government Accountability Office, in 2007 female feds were paid 89 cents for every dollar that male feds earned. No more recent data is available.

Access to Federal News Radio website restored

Full access to the news websites and sister station was restored May 11 after a hacking attack had temporarily blocked some users.

“We have found and eliminated the vulnerabilities that were exploited,” said John Spaulding, Washington director of information systems for parent company Hubbard Radio.

Access to the sites from Internet Explorer Web browsers was blocked after a review suggested the hackers may have targeted Explorer users and exposed them to potential viruses, according to the stations’ news release.

Malicious code was removed and additional security measures were installed. The stations advised that users who accessed the sites from any browser during the attack, from May 5 to May 7, should update and run their security software and perform a malware scan on their computers.

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