Questions remain after Wednesday closure confusion

Thursday - 8/25/2011, 9:28am EDT

By Ruben Gomez
Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

In the wake of the magnitude 5.8 earthquake that rumbled through Washington, D.C. some federal workers were directed to stay home the next day so federal buildings could be inspected for structural damage.

However, in the initial list of closed buildings the Office of Personnel Management released in the early morning hours Wednesday, some buildings were incorrectly listed as closed, leading to confusion as to which buildings were shuttered for the day.

Angela Bailey, OPM's associate director for employee services, told Federal News Radio that posting the list of closed buildings, which was provided by the General Services Administration, is not what OPM usually does.

"We did have conversations with GSA and with ourselves on it's not really necessarily in OPM's 'swim lane' to do building closures," Bailey said. "That's not what we do for a living ... but we just felt that in this particular situation it was really important for us to stand up and take a leadership role in this particular case. We clearly understood that it was a fluid situation. We clearly understood that we were probably going to get a few buildings wrong in the process, but we thought it was in everyone's best interest to take a leadership role and step up and do the best that we could to help and provide the list as we knew at that point in time."

The information on OPM's website came directly from GSA, Bailey said, and she added that OPM went through the list of closures one-by-one before posting to the site.

"We started double-checking, we started triple-checking," she said. "So anything that was coming in from GSA, we were following it up with phone calls to the chief human capital officers to say, 'Is this your confirmation? Do you have the same information?' So we could reconcile everything that was going on."

Timing issue?

Still, after OPM listed the building closures early Wednesday, Federal News Radio began hearing from agency representatives who said, in fact, their buildings were open.

By 8 a.m. — when many federal employees would have been preparing to leave for work — seven of the 13 initial closings on OPM's list contained either errors or outdated information, although it's unclear which.

Bailey said she didn't know where the disconnect happened.

"I don't know so much that it was an error," she said. "I think it was a timing and a fluidity kind of issue. That was the thing: At what point in time do you just stop and put the information up that you have ... that everyone believes is accurate? So that list was literally being worked all night long."

Bailey said as engineers inspected buildings, some of them began to open back up.

"So one of the things we were trying to stress repeatedly, the real message we were trying to get [across] was please check with your agency or your supervisor," she explained.

Along with the initial list Wednesday morning, OPM recommended that employees check in with their individual agencies and also noted that regardless of the list, "Guidance from your agency or supervisor supersedes this list."

Good intentions

However, OPM's list also contained other errors. A closed building listed as belonging to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in Bethesda, Md., was in fact a Nuclear Regulatory Commission building — and remained open.

Later in the morning, OPM listed building closures at the "U.S. Drug Administration," when it meant to refer to buildings at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Bailey said that was simply an oversight. "This is what happens whenever you use a thousand acronyms and we are absolutely a city of acronyms."

Bailey said despite the confusion, the worst-case scenario was "that people came to work and found out that their building was open." She said OPM policies for unscheduled leave and telework helped out. "So the policies and the things we've put in place are working and worked incredibly well."

She added, "I think the main thing to remember here is everybody did everything with good intentions," she added. "And it was all to make sure that folks had the best information in the quickest amount of time that we possibly could to put things up."

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