Bush, Blanco set new tone for the Katrina challenge

At the New Orleans level, it is reported that the city had a plan for evacuating those with no means of transportation. The plan apparently remained on the shelf. Such failures there must also be acknowledged and addressed.
The national focus is on FEMA, which was admittedly incapable of dealing with the catastrophe. In the final analysis, the agency was a victim of the intense focus on terrorism - demoted from Cabinet status, folded into the Department of Homeland Security and made a vehicle for repaying political favors. In 2004, the American Federation of Government Employees warned Congress that experienced people were being pushed aside "to make room for inexperienced novices and contractors." Michael Brown rose to head FEMA without experience or credentials. Chief of Staff Patrick Rhode was a political operative in the presidential campaign. Scott Morris, former deputy chief, was a media strategist.
Crippling of FEMA was tightly linked to the development of the Department of Homeland Security - a process in which congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle not only concurred but also had input. Who spoke out for FEMA?
Somehow, Republicans and Democrats became so caught up in the essentials of preparing for terrorist attacks that they lost sight of the fact that nature on a rampage can be as destructive as the legions of bin Laden.
FEMA must be rebuilt, just as Louisiana must rebuild its disaster-response plan. We urge a return of FEMA to Cabinet-level status and the appointment of a leader, possibly with a military background, capable of blasting through bureaucratic red tape - but with the stature, knowledge and skills to command Washington's respect and cooperation. We think of people in the mold of Gen. George C. Marshall of the Roosevelt - Truman era. In today's ranks, we think of Colin Powell.
We believe there is light at the end of the tunnel now, as state and federal authorities re-examine their roles, admit mistakes and seek ways to assure that never again are catastrophe victims left helpless and alone in the face of danger and death.


FLRA general counsel position set to be filled
By Karen Rutzick
[email protected]
A former government clerk-typist came one step closer to becoming general counsel for the Federal Labor Relations Authority this week.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing Tuesday for the nomination of Colleen Kiko for the position. FLRA, an independent agency responsible for administering labor-management relations, has been without a general counsel since December 2004, after the Senate failed to confirm Peter Eide, who was serving as a recess appointment. In the absence of a general counsel, the deputy general counsel usually serves as acting general counsel, but this position was also unfilled. The position has a five-year term.
The general counsel oversees seven regional FLRA offices, and is the starting point for processing unfair labor practice allegations and representation matters filed with the FLRA. The general counsel also decides on appeals of a regional director's decision not to issue a ULP complaint, which blocks the complaint from going to trial.
"No GC meant we could not issue complaints or litigate any pending matters," Tim Sheils, a recently retired FLRA senior attorney in the San Francisco region, said in an e-mail. "The lack of a GC left the agency unable to act on one of its primary missions: the enforcement of the [Federal Service Labor-Management Relations Statute] through the ULP administrative hearing procedure. This situation lasted for many months, and as the old adage goes: 'Justice delayed is justice denied.' "
In a May 18 letter from Dale Cabaniss, chairwoman of FLRA, to John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Cabaniss denied that the vacancy was causing any real trouble.
The GC position has been vacant "a number of times...I am pleased to share with you that, to the best of my knowledge, the regional directors have consistently demonstrated the ability during these previous periods to provide the necessary leadership...to ensure the business of the OGC continues to the extent allowable..." Cabaniss wrote. She added that she had "every confidence" they were doing the same with this vacancy.
According to Kiko's testimony at the hearing, after her stint as a clerk-typist, she worked at the Labor Management Services Administration, which became FLRA, from 1976 to 1983. Kiko was as a supervisory labor relations specialist when she left FLRA.
After receiving her law degree from George Mason University School of Law in 1986, Kiko worked in the civil rights division of the Justice Department and as special assistant to the U.S. Attorney's Office Eastern District of Virginia. In 1989, she served as associate counsel to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights.
After starting her own practice, Kiko then became part of the firm of Ronald M. Cohen and Associates. In February 2002, she was appointed a judge on the Employees' Compensation Appeals Board, which hears complaints on issues regarding workers' compensation.
Kiko said she sees the goal of general counsel to be "helping agencies effectively and efficiently fulfill their statutory mission through healthy labor management relations."
At the hearing, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said FLRA's role is increasingly significant because of labor relations reforms under way in the Homeland Security and Defense departments.
"I encourage Ms. Kiko to be active in improving labor-management relations in the federal sector during times of such dramatic reform," Voinovich said.
Kiko still has to be approved by the full Senate before she can take on the general counsel position.


OMB tops list of best federal workplaces
BY Florence Olsen
Published on Sep. 15, 2005

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A new ranking of the best places to work in the federal government shows that employees are happier in their jobs than they were two years ago, when a similar survey of federal workers was conducted.
The ranking, led this year by the Office of Management and Budget, can serve as a useful tool for agency leaders to make their agencies more effective and productive, said Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation at American University. The institute and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service created the ranking with data that the Office of Personnel Management collected in 2004 from 150,000 federal employees.
Among the 30 federal agencies that employ the most people, three out of four showed improvement in what Tobias called employee engagement. The two factors that contributed the most to employee engagement, he said, were the quality of leaders in those agencies and a close match between the employee’s job skills and the agency’s mission.
Besides OMB, federal agencies ranked in the top five are the National Science Foundation, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Government Accountability Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
At the bottom of the ranking were the Education Department, the Homeland Security Department and the Small Business Administration. Although some parts of DHS, such as the Coast Guard and the Secret Service, rated high in the employee satisfaction survey, the department as a whole ranked No. 29 out of 30.
Besides being ranked No. 1, OMB also earned “most improved” status, having been No. 3 in the 2003 employee ranking. The office’s deputy director for management, Clay Johnson, said the No. 1 ranking gave him an opportunity to use a bit of humor to chide his senior staff members, who he said are under considerable pressure in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and other crises.
Johnson said he reminded them that they work in the best agency in the federal government, and if they think they have it bad, they should remember that “it’s worse everyplace else.”
Johnson’s explanation for employee satisfaction at OMB was the important mission of the agency. Under President Bush, its mission and role have been elevated, he said. “That role is helping to spend the taxpayers’ money well,” he said, adding that OMB employees take great pride in that.
After noting that “we overwork people,” Johnson said that the biggest factor in employee satisfaction at any agency is the quality of an employee’s immediate supervisor.
With about 500 employees, OMB is one of the smaller agencies in the large-agency ranking. But whatever OMB is doing to promote employee engagement can be replicated at agencies with thousands of employees, said David Walker, the U.S. comptroller general, the top official at GAO. “The principles and processes are scalable to the largest agencies,” he said. “And it’s not rocket science.”
The Partnership for Public Service, which promotes public service employment, published a separate ranking of smaller agencies that includes regional offices within larger agencies. The top-ranked agencies and offices on that list are the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco field office, the EPA’s Seattle field office, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, and NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.


Questions Persist about Katrina Recovery Contracts
by Brendan Coyne
Sep 15 - Following the repeal of normal operating procedures for contractors and allegations of cronyism in awarding federal hurricane relief work, the Department of Homeland Security said yesterday that it would dispatch a team of auditors with a mandate to ensure taxpayer money is spent properly, the New York Times reports.
The investigation, which will reportedly focus largely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's contract-awarding process, is to be carried out by officials from the Agency's own parent department, not an independent body.
The announcement came a day after House Democrats called for an independent investigation and amid union charges that the Bush administration has used the relief effort to gut workers' rights and protections. The Agency has not been forthcoming about how Hurricane Katrina clean-up contracts are being awarded.
Charging that the Bush administration has demonstrated a record of "persistent and costly mismanagement" in awarding no-bid contracts in Iraq and elsewhere, House Democrats sent a letter to United States Comptroller General David M. Walker asking the Government Accountability Office to step in and oversee the contract-awarding process. As recently as March 2004, DHS inspectors found serious flaws in FEMA record keeping, the letter noted.
News reports and reviews by non-governmental organizations have revealed a number of no-bid contracts handed to Bush supporters and allies. Former FEMA director and Bush campaign manager Joseph M. Allbaugh has procured millions in contracts for client companies.
Other companies that have won federal clean-up and relief contracts include $29.8 million to Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, and $100 million to Flour, a high-dollar Republican Party donor.
According to the Times, DHS Inspector General Richard L. Skinner, a former FEMA official, is sending a team of 30 auditors to Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana to monitor no-bid and other contracts. Skinner declined to discuss specifics, though he told the Times he would look at contracts awarded to politically-connected companies.


Health Premiums Rise 6.6%
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005; A29
Health insurance premiums for federal employees and retirees will rise an average of 6.6 percent next year, the lowest increase in nine years, the Bush administration said yesterday.
Still, an official with one federal employee union branded the increase "outrageous," noting that average employee contributions to their health premiums will rise faster than the portion paid by the government.
Linda M. Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, said the government has consistently provided workers more health care options while doing its best to hold down costs.
"[W]e are maintaining a high-quality health-care program that provides excellent benefits at a reasonable cost," Springer said in a statement.
Next year's increase will be the government's smallest since 1997, when average premiums rose 2.4 percent. Independent studies predict a 10 percent increase in health insurance premiums for private sector employees next year, OPM officials said. Federal employees will have 279 health care plans to choose from, up from 249 this year.
An employee with the standard family coverage under Blue Cross and Blue Shield -- the most popular plan, covering more than half of all participants -- will pay $17.53 more in premiums every two weeks, bringing the biweekly cost to $135.59. Standard coverage for an individual will rise by $7.36, to $58.07 biweekly.
Across all plans, a federal worker with family coverage will pay an average of $12.79 more in premiums every two weeks, for a total biweekly cost of $130.17. At the same time, the government will contribute $16.83 more toward that worker's health coverage, for a total biweekly cost of $306.82. The worker's portion of the premium will rise 10.9 percent, compared with a 5.8 percent boost in the government's portion -- the disparity that rankles the union.
"Federal workers are once again being short-changed," said Enid Doggett, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees.
Similarly, for an individual, the average will rise $5.30 every two weeks, for a total biweekly payment of $57.66. The government's contribution for that individual's coverage will rise $7.71 every two weeks, for a total biweekly payment of $134.98. That is a 10.1 percent increase in what the individual pays, and a 6.1 percent increase in what the government pays.
The program provides health insurance coverage to about 8 million government workers, retirees and their family members worldwide, including many in the District, Maryland and Virginia.


Unskilled people need to be kept away from crisis management
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
A warm bond with the president is no disqualification for a responsible job. Notwithstanding his status as John F. Kennedy's brother, Robert F. Kennedy was an adequate attorney general. As a rule of thumb, though, American presidents should steer their less qualified cronies — the ones they admire for deep pockets, loyalty or friendship — to offices where they can do minimal harm. Ambassadorships to inconsequential nations are always popular.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has long been a landing place for cronies, some more qualified than others, with top jobs going to close supporters of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush followed this tradition, handing FEMA's leadership to his 2000 campaign manager Joe M. Allbaugh. When Allbaugh left to become a lobbyist, Bush passed the job on to Allbaugh's former college roommate, Michael D. Brown. Brown's crisis management skills consisted of a not-stellar stint at the Arabian Horse Association.
Unfortunately, this latest FEMA crony presided over an agency that had been disabled at every echelon. According to the Washington Post, five of FEMA's eight top managers were political or public relations operatives linked either to Bush's last campaign or to his White House. When the agency was brought under the umbrella of Homeland Security in 2003, it hemorrhaged experienced disaster planners. More than a year ago, the head of FEMA's employee union complained about the sharp increase of agency positions at all levels going to politically connected novices.
The folly of assigning a gutted, demoralized disaster agency to an unqualified leader has now become horribly plain. In his television appearances, Brown, like Bush himself, seemed to know less of New Orleans' agony than most private citizens.
Brown says he tried to convey the urgency of the crisis to his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and to the White House, without success. Brown said he lacked helicopters and other rescue equipment, and Louisiana officials were little help.
President Bush wasn't the first to treat FEMA as a party favor for friends. But the confluence of war, terrorism and the unstoppable violence of nature demand rigorous leadership from the president and his appointees to national security positions. It is time to reassess the agencies pledged to protect Americans' safety, and demand higher standards for those at the helm.

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