• United States

Congress fights telework malaise

Jul 19, 20044 mins
Cisco SystemsSecurity

We talk with Congressman Tom Davis (R-Va) about his plans for holding government agencies’ feet to the fire over dismal telework performance.

Frustrated by the government’s dismal telework performance, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.),chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, recently held a hearing to get at the cause. At the hearing, he quizzed federal agency leaders, as well as Sun and Cisco, about their successful telework programs. Net.Worker Managing Editor Toni Kistner quizzes Davis on his plans for holding agencies’ feet to the fire.

The Office of Personnel Management report states federal agencies are at 14% compliance with the telework mandate. But nearly 70% of federal teleworkers reside outside the Washington, D.C., area. How do you plan to emphasize telework in the D.C. region specifically, where continuity of operations is most critical?

We may legislate, put some specific mandates on these areas to fulfill the guidelines. There’s a greater opportunity for telework in D.C., because these are mostly front-office people, they’re not in the field. We’re very disturbed by the fact that managers don’t seem to get this.

You mean drafting legislation that withholds $5 million from each agency until it complies?

Yes. We’re talking about money because that’s what agencies understand.

What other measures are you considering?

Tougher reporting requirements. Rather than have agencies say who’s eligible to telework, let’s have them come up with who is ineligible and explain why. That changes the whole dynamic.

The departments of Homeland Security and Justice argue that sending employees home compromises national security. But aren’t such agencies – by virtue of their central location – making themselves more vulnerable to terrorist attack by not teleworking?

That’s the whole point. They’re sitting there with a big bull’s eye on them. All of our records are wrapped up there; it’s a one-stop shop for terrorists.

Do you have specific plans to target high-security agencies?

The answer is yes. You’re going to see more aggressive legislation on this. We’re reviewing a whole lot of options. We’re very frustrated with the level of compliance – or rather, non-compliance – the number of excuses, limitations and ineligibilities that keep coming up not to do this.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) is proposing telework pilots. But pilots have been around for years. Are they necessary?

I’m not going to oppose them, but we’re way beyond pilots at this point. The bigger question is, how do we change the managerial culture so we can do what the private sector is doing and make telework more widespread? It’ll help us in recruiting and retention, productivity and public safety, as we discussed.

What did you learn from Sun and Cisco at the hearing?

That the government can give you a million reasons not to telework.

What are your next steps?

To draft legislation – in this Congress or not, I don’t know. We’re increasingly frustrated, especially those of us who represent the Washington region. We see the traffic mounting every day. Federal workers can’t get back and forth to work. The bottom line is, these managers don’t trust the people who work for them.

That’s government culture?

It is, and it’s not good for employees. Who wants to work for an employer who doesn’t trust you, who’s got to watch you?

Why not let people work from home when it makes sense, when their kid has an early ballgame, or how about when they have a cold and don’t want to come in and give it to everybody else?

I’d argue most employees could take a paperwork day every week or two.

That’s right. There is time you need to catch up. And for a lot of people in the Washington suburbs, really wired areas, you have everything you need right at home, and the government’s not paying for it.

Arm twisting telework

Section 359 of Public Law 106-346 requires that 100% of eligible federal employees telework by the end of 2004. With agencies at only 14%, Congress is taking steps to force compliance.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) introduced an amendment to the Commerce Department’s spending bill that would withhold $5 million from the budgets of the Departments of Commerce, Justice and State until they comply with the telework mandate. The bill also withholds funds from the federal judiciary, the Small Business Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission. It recently was approved in the House.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) plans to draft legislation that will extend the Commerce Department’s spending bill amendment to all Federal agencies.

Rep. Danny Davis (R-Ill.) introduced the Continuity of Operations Demonstration Project Act, which authorizes at least two 30-day pilots to evaluate whether telework can keep the government running in an emergency. The pilots would rely on existing policies and funding.