More fuzzy math

Is the federal government really meeting its telework goals?

Back in January, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released to Congress the results of a November 2002 survey on governmentwide telework programs. The report stated a 21% increase from 2001 in the number of employees who telework, and a 20% increase in the number of employees eligible to telework. The report also states 35% of the federal workforce is eligible to telework.

Increases are good news, considering the fed is mandated by Section 359 of Public Law No. 106-346 to allow 25% of its eligible workforce to telework, and an additional 25% each year thereafter, beginning April 23, 2001. According to the law, 50% of all eligible federal employees must be teleworking by April 23 of this year.

The report states that the fed has not only met — but also surpassed — the goal, reporting that as of 2002, 68.5% of the total eligible federal workforce has been offered the opportunity to telework, 18.5% more than required.

Sound good? It’s supposed to.

But there are some things to think about. For one, the survey states 5% of the federal workforce is teleworking, up from 4.2% in 2001. That’s a very low number, all told, an increase of only .8%.  Second, the OPM’s definition of telework (or telecommuting) has changed significantly from 2001 to 2002. In a March 22, 2001 Congressional hearing, then-OPM Director Steve Cohen testified that a telecommuter is someone who is “available for telecommuting at least one day a week or more.”

However, the 2002 survey reported that agency telework policies “allowed for every kind of telework arrangement, whether regularly scheduled, episodic, medical or reasonable accommodation for a disability.”

The new definition doesn’t require a minimum number of telework days. But worse, the survey fails to define the term “episodic teleworker,” leaving agencies free to interpret it however they wished, even perhaps present a distorted picture of their telework implementations. One article I read stated that some agencies counted as teleworkers employees who had traveled on business or teleworked only once in the past six months.

Also worth noting: Buried in the back of the report is a chart (Table 4 A-D) displaying how often employees telework. The chart breaks down the number of teleworkers who live in the D.C. Metro area and those who live beyond it, as well as those episodic teleworkers. It turns out, a high percentage of federal teleworkers live elsewhere, meaning they’re actually remote workers. Remote workers don’t impact the fed’s mandate to use telework to consolidate office space, cut costs, and reduce traffic congestion and pollution in the Metro D.C. area.

Another question that begs clarification: Who is an eligible employee? The report states the law defines an eligible employee as “any satisfactorily performing employee…whose job may typically be performed away from the office at least one day per week.” Another way to appear to meet the goal is to keep the number of eligible employees down. (If an agency states only 10 of its 500 employees are eligible, and those 10 are teleworking, it’s meeting 100% of the goal.) In some large agencies, only a fraction of employees were deemed eligible, according to the report.

Along the same lines, the report states that 68% of “eligible” employees have been “offered the opportunity to telework.” Yet, if you refer to the same chart, you’ll see in many agencies, the actual number of workers who accept the offer is very small.

Last, the report noted an interesting shift in rank in the various barriers to telework. In 2001, management resistance ranked highest, followed by funding, data security, employee resistance/concerns and technology issues. In 2002, data security and technology issues ranked highest, followed by management resistance, funding and employee resistance.

Learn more about this topic

The Status of Telework in the Federal Government

Telework.gov

March 22, 2001 Congressional hearing on Telework Policies
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