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John Klossner's Ink Tank

Contractor IDs: A lesson from Harry Potter

I have avoided making a Harry Potter reference in this blog for some time now. One reason is that I don't want to give away the fact that I have been one of those adults who enjoyed – okay, was obsessed with – the Harry Potter stories. Another reason, in a similar vein, is that I feel that referencing a young adult's book would detract from any serious points I'm trying to make. And finally, I don't want anyone involved in the federal workforce world to think I am comparing them to a Death Eater.

But, as the saying goes, if not now, when? The first part of the last Harry Potter movie was just released, and realistically I have only several months left of Harry Potter references being relevant on a nationwide or even worldwide cultural level. After that I'll only be able to refer to Dumbledore, Dobby and Dementors with other embarrassed adults I meet in obscure chat rooms, or with 10-year-olds. And based on my experience so far, most 10-year-olds – unless they're related and it's a gift-giving occasion – don't want to have anything to do with me.

Also, as another saying goes, write what you know.

The point I want to reference is that, as the stories become more mature and darker, the good guys worry about being infiltrated by the bad guys. (Those of you who are familiar with the stories know the specifics – this explanation is aimed at the 12 people who haven't read any of the books. The rest of you can go online for movie tickets.) This being the wizard world, everyone can take various physical shapes, even looking like someone else. To protect against this, the good guys identify themselves for each other with personal information. This is similar to the personal questions we all establish for ourselves for our online bank accounts and other security clearances, with the difference being that our online bank accounts would never sell a billion copies.

These questions and statements would include things like "What was the last thing you said to me when we last met?," "What do you teach in the wizarding school?," "What is your nickname?," and "Can you cast a spell that will improve my bank account?" (just kidding on the last one).

I am reminded of this when reading about the latest fed-contractor controversy. Earlier this year, the Defense Department began enforcing a rule requiring contractors to identify themselves in all communications, whether in person, on the phone or by e-mail (see the FCW story here). As someone who doesn't spend time in agency offices, I find this confusing. Is the issue here that contractors taking and misusing sensitive information has become an overwhelming problem? Or that the divide between feds and private-sector personnel is so loaded that if one side was aware of the other's presence they wouldn't "play nice?" Is this a real problem or a perceived problem that personnel on both sides maintain?

Contractors aren't allowed access to certain sensitive data, and feds don't want to inadvertently share this data with them. Understandable. But are feds in the habit of sharing sensitive data with unidentified strangers to begin with? Or do they assume that if someone has physical or communication access to an agency they are safe to share this data with? Is there a substantial list of examples of contractors stealing and/or misusing information?

Or is this just another skirmish in the fed-contractor wars? It smells of being a communication issue. Regardless of how many bodies walk through or contact agencies, do feds share information with people they know nothing about? That was the point made in the article by Bob Woods, a retired fed. “The rule only exacerbates the situation. Worse yet, it’s not even necessary, because feds know who the contractors are,” he said. “If not, they’re not being diligent."

(I can already hear one response to my question: People lie. In this case, contractors. Aren't there existing penalties for anyone who accesses sensitive information without having clearance? I feel so naive even typing that sentence – kind of like pointing out it's illegal to drive over 55 on the highway. But writing another law requiring drivers to say if they drive fast won't cut down the amount of speeders.)

On the other side, is it that hard for contractors to identify themselves? If asked "Are you a contractor?", are those fighting words? Or, if you identify yourself as a contractor, does everyone yell "unclean!" and you have to eat lunch alone for the next 10 years? I get the feeling that this is another story where the stereotypes represent a handful of extreme cases yet the majority of the anecdotes. It would seem that encouraging all players to – gulp – talk some more might help the situation.

That said, maybe we need to take a page from the Harry Potter tales and, instead of our usual greetings, start all conversations with a couple questions to – based on the response – help us figure out which side the person we are speaking with is on. I suggest the following:

* Do you think feds are paid too much?
* Can you recommend a discount clothing store?
* Didn't you love the recent issue of “Martha Stewart’s Public-sector Cafeterias”?
* What motivates you more: creating an efficient and fair society or the new Audi A8?
* Does the "G" in G-15 stand for "good job?"

Or, if all those fail:

* Are you a contractor?

Contractor IDs

Posted on Nov 30, 2010 at 7:26 PM1 comments

PowerPoint: Your guide to loving it, hating it or leaving it


Klossner kitten



* It beats working

* You can pick up subtleties in the 254th PowerPoint presentation that you may have overlooked in the 253rd

* You like the cartoons

[Note: Include directions to article on PP addiction]


* It puts you to sleep

* The snoring of those around you prevents you from sleeping

* You have seen so many PowerPoint presentations that you are unable to read to your children unless "The Cat in the Hat" is bulleted



* … Openly (e.g., include announcement of next week's PowerPoint presentation on searching for new job)

* … In your internationally published column [NOTE: See if this person will do a PowerPoint seminar for us on "how to write a resignation letter and get paid for it"]

* … Secretively (e.g., include announcement of tomorrow's PowerPoint presentation on how to blog anonymously)

* … On your Facebook page -- and when confronted, claim that "that no-good Zuckerberg has no respect for privacy"


You'll have more time to ...

* ... Spend with your family

* ... Work in the garden

* ... Travel


… Just stick around for the cartoons

[NOTE: Insert cartoon here]

Klossner PowerPoint

[NOTE: Do we have to pay for the cartoon? If so, use photo of kitten (NOTE: Make sure to use public domain kitten image)]


* Possibility of advancement when those above you are let go for complaining

* Possibility of a military medal for lower body numbness caused by sitting through a three-hour PowerPoint [NOTE: Look into this]


* Give out bonuses for anyone spotting inconsistencies in the type faces or color coding (e.g., include announcement of next month's PowerPoint presentation, “Is the Army more Helvetica or Times New Roman?")

* Have a "pick the cutest kitten" contest

[NOTE: Change this to "pick the cutest public domain kitten image" contest]


* Show Rorschach image for audience responses

* Make sure image is actual Rorschach image and not the coffee stain we accidently used in last PowerPoint

* In case of screw-up, ask audience if they can spot the difference between Rorschach blot and coffee stain

* For bonus points, have audience color code the Rorschach blot for the appropriate military branch

* Additional bonus points for any audience member who thinks Rorschach blot looks like public domain kitten image

* See if audience members think the "bowl of spaghetti" slide looks more like an omelet


Respect your audience: End presentation early, to allow them to make it to the next scheduled PowerPoint

Posted by John Klossner on Nov 10, 2010 at 7:26 PM1 comments

Federal vs. corporate pay scales: A cartoonist tries to sort it all out

Principles of economics

The heading to my blog posts on fcw.com says "FCW cartoonist John Klossner." I am not sure whether this is to warn the reader not to take the following too seriously or that the linked piece will be entertaining, but I get the feeling that I can't win either way.

It was with this in mind that I approached the topic of federal employee salaries. There has been a tempest recently over whether federal employees -- especially in light of current economic issues -- are being paid more than corporate workers. People have argued about the validity of the various studies, about whether you can compare a federal middle manager to their counterpart in the private sector, and about whether federal employees are generally a better educated community than the private sector at large. I thought that this was the opportunity to rise above my cartoonist's ghetto and offer some real substance.

I threw myself into the research. I read numerous salary surveys. I annoyed various editors looking for comparable figures. I looked at charts. I made charts. I annoyed my federal employee wife with numerous questions about fed pay scales. I went through two pages of Google listings on federal salaries. This led me to a major discovery.

I am a cartoonist, not an economist.

Early on in my search for numbers that would allow me to compare a Pentagon receptionist's salary in 2000 with a midwestern Fortune 500 IT project manager's pay in 2009, I had a conversation with an editor who put it succinctly - "You can't compare apples with oranges." This person was trying to save me time. A lot of time, as it turned out. Hah, I thought. Surely I can compare apples and oranges, and maybe throw in some pears while I'm at it.

It turns out that a cartoonist trying to be an economist is as American as orange pie. For those of you looking here for the in-depth number crunching that will clarify the question of "do federal employees make too much?" I apologize.

But in the midst of all my research, I encountered the following anonymous comment:

"I am not believing what I am hearing here. I am a contractor with a MAJOR international corporation who permanently reduced the salaries of all of us by 5% while laying off thousands. The federals on the other hand were complaining that their pay RAISE was reduced to only 2%. These are people who can bank leave and earn time off for practically everything they do. I am salaried exempt. I get nothing more no matter how much I work and I do not know a single private sector company that allows you to save up leave.... I am currently working with federals who earn salary commensurate with what I make.... You tell me if these people do not enjoy high pay and great benefits that are not available in the private sector. Where else can you be guarranteed a job for life by just showing up every day. I have not had a pay raise in four years, my salary was cut 5% and my health benefits cost me more than they did last year for worse coverage than I had before. If the economy ever recovers I will probably look for another job somewhere else....maybe somewhere that has some sort of retirement plan. I don't have one, but the federal employees do!" (Let’s just say [sic] for the entire comment.)

(As an aside, I want to propose that all "add comments" boxes have an opt-out "sic" button.)

This comment brought a couple thoughts to mind. For one, if the feds have it so good, why didn't this writer apply for a federal position when he or she was entering the job market? When the economy was booming, federal jobs were looked down upon: They didn't pay as well as the private sector, federal employees didn't have access to the latest technologies, and what self-respecting motivated capitalist would want to work in those bureaucratic morasses?

Two, I come from the school that says that one can make numbers support whatever argument they make and, in that light, I'm sure some federal positions pay too much and some not enough. I look forward to a time -- when the economy comes back to life and the natural order is restored and the commenter can once again look down his or her nose at federal employees -- when this person's follow-up post states how unfair it is that private sector personnel are compensated at a higher rate than comparable federal employees.

There is a cute game being played here: Members of the private sector are complaining about the compensation feds make when, in the past, these same people had no respect for these same federal positions. Being a cartoonist, I feel qualified to resort to analogies here. The ant and the grasshopper come to mind. Or the fox and the grapes. The tortoise and the hare.

Or the economist and the cartoonist.

John Klossner

Posted by John Klossner on Oct 28, 2010 at 7:26 PM57 comments

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