• United States

Government telework makes modest gains

Jun 01, 20043 mins

* New OPM report hints non-compliant agencies will be held accountable

It’s that time again; to count how many of the federal government’s 1.7 million employees are teleworking. The Office of Personnel Management’s just-released annual report reveals federal agencies are still maddeningly slow to promote telework, and a million miles away from complying with the federal mandate. However, there are signs things could start turning around.

For one, OPM’s getting better at dealing with employee eligibility, a loophole agencies exploit to duck compliance. For instance, citing the new 2003 report, four employees of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board are eligible to telework, and all four are teleworking. That means with only four teleworkers, the agency is 100% in compliance with the law. On the other hand, of the 25,803 employees of the Department of Homeland Security eligible to telework, only 392 are actually doing so. That’s .015% compliance, yet adds 392 teleworkers to the rolls.

This is why OPM  needs to track two numbers: eligible employees and eligible teleworkers. Or rather, how many workers can do their jobs at home or from a telework center, and of those, how many actually are. Agencies need 100% of their eligible employees teleworking to comply with the law. 

While a few agencies reported a decline, overall the number of eligible employees increased about 20% in 2003, to 751,844 (43%), up from 625,313 (35%) in 2002. Also good to see is what looks like honest eligibility reporting. In dozens of cases, agencies reported high numbers of eligible employees but low numbers of teleworkers. (The report will be made public in the coming weeks.)

With accurate reporting, OPM can now think up ways to hold non-compliant agencies accountable. That’s a good idea, given the number of eligible workers that actually teleworked in 2003 remained “stable” at 14% from the previous year. Telework center use also declined 5% in 2003.   

Until now, OPM’s played good cop. Promotional efforts include creating training modules for managers and employees in conjunction with the General Services Administration available on the site. OPM spent an additional $500,000 in 2003 to provide problem agencies – those with less than 2% compliance, which number 12 out of 74 – with special consultation, training, promotional materials and an all-day seminar.

But now, maybe it’s time to play bad cop. The report states: “To emphasize agency responsibility and bring telework  into the scope of expected human resources flexibilities, rather than have it remain a new or ‘special’ program, OPM began laying the groundwork for including telework in evaluations of agency human capital management.” A veiled threat that has something to do with money?  

Of course, OPM can’t penalize other agencies; that’s Congress’ job. In a story first reported last week by WTOP Radio’s Steve Eldridge, telework advocate Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said he’s disappointed in agencies’ slow progress, and plans to reduce the appropriations of those that don’t allow their employees to telework.