Official Time: Practically Opaque in Every Way | Citizens Against Government Waste
The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Official Time: Practically Opaque in Every Way

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


On May 9, 2013, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order stating, “Openness in government strengthens our democracy, promotes the delivery of efficient and effective services to the public, and contributes to economic growth.”  His pronouncement does not equate with reality:  not all federal agencies are as open and transparent as the president wishes them to be.  With apologies to Mary Poppins, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has proven to be practically opaque in every way:  When it comes to reporting hours spent on “official time,” the last report OPM released on this virtual union subsidy was for fiscal year (FY) 2012.

Official time, a provision in the Civil Service Reform Act that was signed into law by President Carter in 1978, refers to the particular time an employee completes his or her obligations as a union representative while on “duty status” at their federal job.  These taxpayer-funded union duties include negotiating collective bargaining agreements, filing grievances against their employers, and handling those grievances.  On a more positive note, official time cannot be used for union activities such as soliciting membership, collecting dues, or holding union elections.  However, there is no cap on the number of hours an individual can spend on official time, nor is there an overall limit on the total number of hours that can be spent on official time government-wide or within each agency.  This broadly written law not only lacks limits on time: there is also no guidance on how to track that time.  

In October 2014, when OPM finally issued a report on official time for FY 2012, the practice cost taxpayers $157 million annually, or $2.5 million more than the $155.5 million in 2011, and an increase of $16.5 million over the $139 million in 2010.  By contrast, during President George W. Bush’s administration, official time cost $120 million in 2008, a net increase of just $6 million from the $114 million in 2002.  While official time costs have increased by more than $40 million from 2002 to 2012, $34 million of that increase, or 85 percent, has occurred on President Obama’s not-so-transparent watch.  With these rising costs to the taxpayers, more sunlight could exert pressure for necessary reforms and improvements.

The current scenario is ripe for abuse:  there is no limit on the amount of official time, no mandated system for tracking the time, and no imperative for the agencies to publish the information.  An October 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed considerable problems in reporting official time hours.  Not only were there gaps in the reporting system, OPM knew about these gaps and continued with its faulty methods anyway.  

In comparing OPM’s reporting and that of the agencies, the differences were alarming: OPM reported 14,794 hours while the Treasury reported only 8,941; OPM reported 236,004 hours while the Department of Transportation reported 272,283 hours; and OPM reported 259,553 hours while the Department of Homeland Security reported 272,283.  The GAO also noted that, because there are no limits on the amount of official time, there is even more risk for abuse, especially in agencies that have more than one bargaining agreement in place.  Additionally, the report found that there are federal employees who spend 100 percent of their time completing union representative duties, with no work directly related to their agency’s mission or purpose.  For example, there are 249 “employees” at the VA who spent 100 percent of their time for union representative duties.

There have been attempts in Congress to force more transparency or end official time completely.  Thus far, no legislation has succeeded, in no small part due to the efforts of the federal employee unions.  

In March 2015, Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) introduced the Federal Employee Accountability Act, which would eliminate official time for federal employees.  Federal employees acting as union representatives would not be paid by taxpayers to negotiate their collective bargaining contracts; instead, they would negotiate such contracts on their own time.  Neither of these bills have moved in their respective committees of jurisdiction.  Without this bill or limits on official time, union representatives and their bosses benefit directly from federal spending with little to no accountability to the American people.

In the cinematic version of Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke’s character, Bert, regaled the audience with the number, Step in Time: “…never need a reason, never need a rhyme, step in time…”  While official time may have neither rhyme nor reason, it needs to be reported accurately and on a yearly basis, at the very least.  Taxpayers deserve to know not only where their money is spent but also how.

Congress appropriates money for each federal agency to complete its mission, not so employees can play union representative on the taxpayer’s payroll.  OPM and President Obama are protecting the interests of a unionized federal workforce at the expense of the American people.  As Mary Poppins might conclude, this practice is “really quite atrocious.”

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