Feds need to do a better job of measuring telecommuting benefits

Telecommuting benefits most often cited are improved recruitment/retention, increased productivity, and improved work/life balance

United States Government Accountability Office

With one of the largest telecommuting communities – over 1 million -- in the country many of the Federal agencies that support it have little information to show about its benefits.

Watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office this week issued a report that found that many agencies “had little data to support the benefits or costs associated with their telework programs. All of the selected agencies could provide some supporting documentation for some of the benefits and only two could provide supporting documentation for some of the costs.”

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The GAO said it found substantial declines in agency reporting of telework cost savings to the Office of Personnel Management which collects such data.

For example, in 2012, agencies reported 66 examples of telework cost savings, but a year later they reported 29 examples. Amidst this decline, OPM decided to collect less information about cost savings—a key benefit of telework. OPM asked agencies for cost savings information in 2011, 2012, and 2013 but did not in its 2014-2015 agency data request, the GAO stated.

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 requires an annual assessment of agencies in meeting established outcome goals.

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The GAO said: “Assessments that include information on benefits, net costs savings, and costs can help decision makers in determining the overall effects of their telework programs and the progress achieved. Office of Personnel Management officials stated that they streamlined the annual data request to focus on the act's requirements, which do not explicitly include reporting on cost savings. However, as a result of this decision Congress will have less information to assess the value of telework.”

The benefits most frequently cited by the selected agencies were improved recruitment/retention, increased productivity, and improved work/life balance, reduced employee absences, reduced commuting costs/transit subsidies, increased productivity, reduced real estate costs, reduced utilities, and positive environmental impacts, such as reduced greenhouse emissions, the GAO stated.

Ongoing costs of telework programs include training and managing the telework program and one-time costs include information technology set up. The ongoing cost most frequently cited by the selected agencies was personnel costs, the GAO found.

The agencies the GAO looked at included the Department of Transportation (DOT), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), General Services Administration (GSA), Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The GAO report recommended that the Director of OPM should include cost savings questions in future telework data calls and provide clarifying guidance on options for developing supporting data for benefits and costs. The OPM concurred with both recommendations and said it will include cost savings questions from previous surveys in the 2016 agency telework survey.

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