Surfing Web sites for Fed Workers

Today's federal employees are faced with a daunting challenge: keeping up with the latest changes that affect their job, pay, family, health and future. This is further complicated, and also aided, by the increasing number of Web sites geared toward the federal worker. The question is: What's out there and where should you go?

I recently reviewed three Web sites - two new and one established - that I think are the best of the bunch, although they still have a long way to go. In general, they offer an aggregation of information that's useful to feds; some of it is original content and much of it is from other sources, mostly governmental.

PlanetGov.com

Launched earlier this year, PlanetGov.com bills itself as "The Web Portal for Government Employees" and features articles written exclusively for this site.

"From a content perspective, what we want PlanetGov.com to be is a place where government and military professionals come to get information," said Steve Baldwin, chief executive officer of PlanetGov.com. The information is associated with different "channels" such as health, career, news and, in the near future, travel and technology. It also offers free e-mail and Internet services.

The feature attraction is a daily column by Mike Causey, the former Washington Post columnist. His Federal Forum column for the site is devoted to federal employee issues. It deals with topics that are of continuing interest to feds, such as the gap between federal employee pay and private-sector pay.

The front page also features a section called "Today's Top Stories" that contains time-sensitive news. That's a strong point for this site because it shows that PlanetGov.com is not just picking up news from various sources and repackaging it. Instead, the site has people covering stories that feds want to read, and it also has a features section that spotlights agencies.

A daily advice column, "Ask Juliana," answers readers' questions. On the day I visited, Juliana offered advice to a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission counselor who wasn't sure how to deal with questions from friends at the office because her job required her not to disclose details of her work.

Such advice can be useful to feds in a variety of occupations.

For now, the site is not fully operational. In the future, plans call for a marketplace section that will provide information to agencies on buying computer and communications hardware, software and services. A travel section will enable feds to make airline and train reservations, book hotel rooms, get per diem rates and learn about a destination city. A "Collaboration Section" will contain information to help feds manage their offices' work and systematically gain the inputs and approvals they need.

PlanetGov.com provides many links, including one to the Federal Research Service site, which has long provided federal employees with information about federal job openings.

The bottom line: This site is off to a quick start and promises to develop into an extremely useful one.

Fedamerica.com

The four-month-old fedamerica.com site, which calls itself the place "Where Feds Go First," contains a wealth of information on topics such as pay and benefits, retirement and health, and offers free newsletters and handbooks.

"Our game plan is to be the No. 1 information provider for federal employees for free," said John Whitney, CEO and publisher.

Clicking on the newsletter tab allows you to subscribe to two free e-mail newsletters: fedreport.com, which covers the latest career information, and fedtechnology.com, which details the latest technology news.

Behind the "Pay and Benefits" tab, you'll find information on various federal pay plans, the GS/GM pay tables, 2000 locality pay areas, a tutorial about the Federal Wage System and information about the Pay Comparability Act. Accessing this information enables you to, for example, check on how much a promotion will add to your paycheck and how much your next step increase is worth.

On the same page, you can access handbooks covering a wide range of topics including insurance and disability. For example, if you want to know whether you can add a newly adopted child to your existing health benefit coverage, you can check that out in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program handbook.

There is also a separate section that contains handbooks on other topics, including alternative dispute resolution, the Federal Employees Health Benefits program, the Federal Employees Retirement System, the Civil Service Retirement System, the Fed-eral Employees Group Life Insurance program and a veterans' guide to federal employment.

These handbooks are available for free elsewhere - for example, the Federal Employees Health Benefits handbook is an Office of Personal Management product.

However, it's convenient to get a comprehensive collection of fact-filled handbooks for feds from one site. There isn't a lot of value added by fedamerica.com, but it offers a library that has everything a fed could want.

The bottom line: This is a very useful site containing a library of free information that feds want.

Fedweek.com

"Putting Federal Employees and Retirees First" labels this interesting site. It primarily offers advice and news on pay, benefits and financial planning for federal workers. "What separates us is we're not a portal," said Kevin Couch, vice president of marketing and operations. "We're not trying to drive all the feds to our site to buy. We're a traditional publisher giving them solid information, and we also publish our own books."

The three-year-old Fedweek.com site offers a free weekly newsletter by the same name that contains news targeted at federal employees. When I visited this site, its weekly newsletter contained information on the recent passage of a long-term care insurance bill; an update on the federal employee health insurance open season; and news on an upcoming federal pay raise.

The site provides GS locality pay tables. So if you are considering a job offer from an agency in some other part of the country, you can check the locality pay tables to see what your salary would be in that region.

If you're not sure which locality a particular federal installation is in, just click on the tab "Definition of 2000 Locality Pay Areas" and you are provided with the geographical boundaries of each area. Law enforcement personnel can access a similar table that applies to their unique pay schedule.

The site also gives everything you might ever want to know concerning pay for the executive schedule, which includes appointees such as assistant secretaries. There's also information on the basic pay rates for members of the Senior Executive Service, employees in senior-level scientific or professional positions, administrative law judges and members of the Board of Contract Appeals.

There is also information on per diem rates - useful as you head out on government travel.

A retirement information center offers documents helpful for someone thinking about retirement or who is already retired. For example, a report that contains information on the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance program is presented in a question-and- answer format. You might find this data elsewhere, but it is convenient to access it at one site.

There's information here that could save you a bundle. The site offers information on the Federal Employees and Civil Service retirement systems and the Thrift Savings Plan. For each topic, the site provides an overview that contains useful information, but it's far from complete. The site offers to sell you a detailed report on each topic for about $10, which isn't too steep.

But clearly, it is trying to whet your appetite to buy the report.

This site contains a nice collection of hyperlinks and is convenient for someone who likes a one-stop shopping approach that's relevant to feds.

However, you won't find original content.

The bottom line: This site, though not as comprehensive as fedamerica.com, has useful information for feds. Its strongest attraction is the weekly newsletter.

These three sites have a lot to offer and will undoubtedly get better. If you come across a good site for feds, let me know and I'll pass the information on.

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