Presidential Rank Award winners don’t get enough notice, In my humble opinion.
This came to mind as the federal employment front saw lots of action this week: The 5.2% federal pay raise gambit. Given the slim chances of the 8.7% raise becoming law, you could get that 5.2%, if Congress is silent on an eventual appropriation bill. There’s the launch of the new budget season writ large, even progress on the TSP web site.
But, getting back to the Presidential Rank Awards, may I pause for a few words about just a small sample of these distinguished people.
The White House puts out an announcement with a nice looking PDF and that’s about it. All you see are names and agencies. Some agencies do more, for example, Homeland Security posts a page with some detail about its recipients and what they’ve done.
I interviewed a few of them in recent weeks. For example, MaryAnn Tierney, the Region III administrator at FEMA. This down-to-earth senior executive could be the mom next door. In fact, she said emergency response “starts with your neighbors, it’s people helping each other. Neighbors are the first responders.”
But Tierney’s resolve to mitigate disasters was forged on 9/11, when she was working at Seven World Trade Center for the New York City Emergency Management Center. She subsequently worked for Philadelphia’s emergency management operation and gained a solid rep within the EM community. She joined FEMA in 2010. Tierney says inter-regional and intergovernmental collaboration is an important linchpin in good response. She notes that from her Region III FEMA office in Philadelphia, she can see New Jersey in Region II.
Jennifer Miller rose as a career civilian to staff director for the Air Force, which like the Navy, likes to refer to itself now as a department. Miller said her job, initiated by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, acknowledges the need to operate as two entities, Air Force and Space Force. She oversees a broad portfolio, including inquiries from Congress.
“And my team manages all the inquiries that come over from the Hill,” she added, “all the requirements that come out through the Secretary of Defense’s office, and then helps manage the staff for everything from acquisition to Manpower and Reserve Affairs, installations, environment and energy, space acquisition.”
Earlier, Miller worked Air Force installation decisions, enabling appointed and uniformed leadership to decide which new doodad got hosted where. Reports on varying degrees of staff retention from the different locations led to a project called Supportive Military Families. It aimed to fix problems that made some locations undesirable, such as spouses not being able to use trade licenses obtained elsewhere.
As a long-serving career employee, Miller had this to say about the political appointees who come and go: “I’ve never met one who did not take a significant pay cut to come and be a civil servant for the government. So these are well intended hardworking individuals who really are committed.” I got a sense of her selflessness when I asked if she ever took up an offer to fly in one of Air Force’s fighter jets.
Turns out, those trips for non-airmen are a scarce commodity. She said that flights are commonly offered to the maintainers, who may have worked on a single plane for 20 years. Miller said, “So given the cost associated with it, I’ll let the people who get to work on it everyday be the ones who go. I will cheer them on from the ground, and stick to my roller coasters instead.”
Check out a couple of the interviews we’ve posted, and watch for a few yet to air. I hope you’ll be as inspired as I was.
The headline above sounds like a typical Government Accountability Report, right? GAO did not yet say this in a blog post about its just-launched look-see into the Thrift Savings Plan web portal.
GAO did note: “The goal of the new online portal was to modernize TSP’s recordkeeping, improve customer service, and bolster cybersecurity. Immediately after launch, users started having trouble using the system. We received some of their complaints. These complaints ranged from minor annoyances to more serious concerns.”
The Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board has leaned on contractor Accenture, which has restored functions TSP customers sorely missed after the switchover last spring.
Among the “progress but…” fixes: the monthly withdrawal rate. Yes, you can now adjust how much you want to pull out every month. But you still must initiate it with a phone call. In my interview with Kim Weaver, the external affairs director of the Board, she said the ability to change withdrawal amounts entirely online will come out in the spring.
Weaver told me that at the most recent board meeting, “members were asking some, I would say, pointed questions to the Accenture officials that were there.”
Weaver said the call center reps have received refresher training. Weaver said a fast pickup to a phone call is one objective. Equally important, is whether the operator can resolve the issue. My email shows mixed experiences. I’d add, though, that people tell me the operators are sympathetic and try to help, even when they haven’t been able to. Eight in ten calls were picked up within 20 seconds in the most recent quarter, “but we also have 35% repeat callers, Weaver said, “which means that they either didn’t really get the answer they needed the first time around or that their issue hasn’t been resolved.”
Some functions will remain off the new site. Of note: your ability to look back into your TSP history. Weaver said the most recent addition to the new site gives a view back to June 1, 2022. She said analysis of how frequently people seek older data, and the risks associated with keeping the old data live means it will not be available online. Older statement will require a phone call.
That’s a source of frustration for one reader, who said he needs a statement from 2003 in order to get on with a divorce proceeding. D. said he’s made four queries to obtain the statement, “suffering through a five-month nightmare experience,” but no statement.
GAO says its report will come out early next year. Let’s hope that by then, it’s a retrospective, lessons-learned report, not a “progress made, but more to be done” one.