More federal workers telecommuting

Despite numerous incentives and legislative edicts lobbed at U.S. agencies over the years, boosting the ranks of federal employees who telework is a slow, sometimes painful process.

Take the situation at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which last month was ordered by a federal arbitration panel to allow its legal instrument examiners to telework on a pilot basis.

ATF was against letting these specialists telework because it says the material they need to remove from agency offices in order to telework posed a security risk. The Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP) became involved at the request of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which successfully argued its case for allowing the examiners to telework on a pilot basis.

Once the six-month pilot concludes, the union intends to propose that these ATF employees be allowed to telework on a permanent basis, according to Colleen Kelley, the union’s president. “Now that this case has been decided favourably, I am hopeful that ATF will work with NTEU on strategies to make telework succeed for all employees, rather than focusing on ways to prevent employees from being part of the program,” Kelley says.

A history of resistance

ATF isn’t the first — nor will it be the last — federal agency to be strong-armed into letting more employees telework.

By law, all executive agencies should be enabling eligible employees to telecommute. Public Law 106-346, which went into effect Oct. 23, 2000, called for agencies to increase telework participation by 25 per cent of the federal workforce annually, until 100 per cent of eligible employees “participate in telecommuting to the maximum extent possible without diminished employee performance.”

More than seven years later, federal telework adoption is still painfully lagging. Only 9.5 per cent of the more than one million federal employees who were eligible in 2005 to work from an alternative site did so at least once a month, according to survey data released last year by the Office of Personnel Management.

Legislators have made continued efforts to speed up adoption (and penalize those that don’t comply), including the proposed Telework Enhancement Act, which was approved by the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in November.

Senators Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) proposed the legislation, which would require all executive and legislative agencies to institute a telework policy, provide training for participating employees and managers, and ensure that each employee review include a discussion of telework feasibility.

Most significantly, the Telework Enhancement Act would change the telework eligibility rules to make all federal employees eligible unless shown otherwise by their employer. Currently, the law states that all employees are ineligible to participate in the telework program unless deemed otherwise by their employing federal agency.

But industry watchers note it may be demographic trends, not legislative mandates, which finally accelerate telework adoption in the federal government.

Government Insights, a subsidiary of research firm IDC, predicts the first big wave of government retirees will force agencies to measurably broaden their use of telework.

“Government is facing the same retirement bubble that every industry is, as the oldest group of Baby Boomers start retiring” beginning around 2009, says Shawn McCarthy, director of research for vendor programs at Government Insights. Being able to offer a telework option can help agencies keep experienced employees who may be willing to remain if they can do so from an alternative workplace.

“Let’s say somebody retires, and they decide to move to South Carolina or Florida or something. Being able to work as a contractor, and continue to participate via telework, would be really attractive,” McCarthy says.

Telework options also can help attract and retain new employees for whom flexible work arrangements are a priority, McCarthy says.

Other benefits of telework include the ability to reduce energy use, cut down on greenhouse gases, ease traffic congestion, increase worker productivity, and shore up continuity of operations plans, says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, an organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes telework through education and legislative efforts.

The security debate

Despite well-publicized benefits, telework faces obstacles to greater public-sector adoption, including management resistance, IT requirements and employee concerns about accountability.

Lack of awareness is another problem: Among 214 federal managers surveyed by Telework Exchange and the Federal Managers Association, 47 per cent thought their agencies didn’t support telework and 18 per cent were unsure — despite the reality that all executive agencies are required to have a telework program.

In the case of ATF, the agency has been resisting telework for some time, claims NTEU, which represents 150,000 employees in 31 agencies and departments. NTEU in May 2006 negotiated a telework program with ATF that allowed some employees to telework. Industry operations investigators were allowed to telework, for example, but legal instrument examiners were not.

In presenting its case to FISP, ATF cited security concerns at its reason for restricting telework options. The material legal instrument examiners access, including firearms applications, should not be removed from the workplace because doing so “would put the general public at risk if criminals or terrorists were to gain access to them by theft or other means and then obtain weapons for criminal purposes,” ATF asserted in its position. In addition, the agency said it lacks the technological infrastructure to enable legal instrument examiners to remotely access secure electronic forms.

The NTEU, meanwhile, said existing federal agency policies address the proper use and handling of non-classified sensitive data and provide for off-site access to such data. ATF “should not be rewarded for refusing to automate its work processes by denying [legal instrument examiners] the opportunity to telework,” NTEU stated in its position.

“Numerous public agencies and private companies have figured out how to automate their processes so their employees can telework, including other divisions within ATF.”

When the arbitrator at FSIP, Grace Flores-Hughes, rendered her decision on Dec. 13, she sided with NTEU and found ATF failed to demonstrate that it would be inappropriate for legal instrument examiners to participate in telework, nor that it would raise risks beyond those that exist by allowing ATF industry operations investigators to telework.

“Hundreds of [industry operations investigators] have been transporting similar sensitive materials on a daily basis from their homes to the sites of firearms and explosives dealers since the May 2006 telework agreement went into effect without any reported incidents of theft or loss,” Flores-Hughes said.

A recent study conducted by the Telework Exchange supports the idea that security isn’t a deal-breaker when it comes to telework. Among federal CISOs surveyed, 94 per cent said official teleworkers don’t pose a security threat, and 83 per cent said telework doesn’t hamper their abilities to meet Federal Information Security Management Act requirements.

Getting it done

While there are a number of telework holdouts in the federal government, it’s inaccurate to portray the entire public industry as resistant to telework, Wilsker cautions. Some agencies understand the advantages and are doing a good job developing and maturing their telework programs.

“There are agencies out there that really get it. There’s support from the top, there’s support from IT, there’s support from HR,” says Wilsker, who cites the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Defense Information Systems Agency, groups within the Treasury Department, and the General Services Administration as having strong telework programs.

“The problem is that there’s no uniformity in the federal government. There’s nobody who says, ‘this is the way it’s going to be for everybody,'” Wilsker says. “I think it’s going to take either a catastrophe or some real strength from the top, to push this thing down.”

Related content:

Fed managers clueless on telework, study says

Young government IT workers say tech is dated, says study

Telework increases among government employees

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