October 6, 2003

Federal telework programs slow to catch on, despite agency efforts

By Tanya N. Ballard

tballard@govexec.com

Despite a mandate from Congress and more attention from the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, telework programs continue to grow slowly in the federal workplace, an OPM official says.

Federal agency telework programs got a boost three years ago when Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., pushed legislation through Congress requiring agencies to expand their efforts to create teleworking opportunities for federal employees. Under his plan, the entire federal workforce would be eligible to participate in telework programs by 2004, but the federal government is nowhere near meeting that target, according to Abby Block, deputy associate director of OPM's Center for Employee and Family Support Policy.

"Unfortunately, we're not quite there yet," Block said Thursday during a Mid-Atlantic Telework Advisory Council meeting. "We're not close to 100 percent, but we are making good progress."

Wolf is making efforts to force agencies to step up their telework initiatives. The lawmaker included language in a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State, the Judiciary, and Related Agencies' conference report that would require those agencies and departments to offer teleworking programs to their entire workforce within six months after the bill is passed.

OPM reports annually to Congress on the governmentwide telework initiative, noting both successes and problems. The 2003 telework report found that just 5 percent of federal employees were teleworking in 2002, but that was a 21 percent increase over the numbers for 2001. OPM works closely with GSA in promoting and tracking telework efforts, but an August 2003 General Accounting Office study found that poor collaborative efforts between the two agencies may have hindered the growth of telework programs in the federal workplace. Both agencies disputed GAO's assertion and now they are considering a memorandum of understanding that would "clearly designate each agency's roles and responsibilities."

"A strong relationship with GSA is important in the promotion of telework," Block told the council.

An earlier study conducted by the two agencies concluded that the lack of a universal term for the practice made it difficult for agencies to keep track of how many employees telecommute. This year, OPM has pared the definition of telework down to two categoriesócore telework, which encompasses regular and routine teleworkers, and situational telework, which covers employees who work from home because of weather problems or other nonrecurring events. The survey will also gauge how much telework activity is specific to a particular employee's situation as opposed to being job-related.

"This year we hope to have very good standardized data . . . to help us determine where we are in the process," Block said.

OPM plans to hold a training session for telework coordinators on Nov. 4, using money earmarked by Congress to help agencies with low telework numbers. "It should be, we hope, an interesting way to promote telework," Block said.

Federal agencies with at least 10 percent of their workforce teleworking include the Energy, Commerce, Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services departments, the Agency for International Development, Environmental Protection Agency, Merit Systems Protection Board, National Science Foundation, GAO, GSA and OPM.