Bad management gives telework a bad name

Suddenly, it seems the most virtuous soul  isn’t so righteous afterall.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has long been a leader in the use of telework for federal employees. But the agency recent days also has become known for practices that make a mockery of the valuable and innovative tool that  has benefits for workers, managers and customers — when used properly.


The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Citing a Commerce Department inspector general’s probe,  my colleague Lisa Rein reported this month that  PTO paralegals surfed the Internet, watched television, exercised and did laundry while they should have been teleworking.

They had too little work to do. Inspector General (IG) Todd Zinser called it “a complete breakdown of management.”

Taxpayers have a right to be angry about that.

But is telework the culprit? Or is it bad management?

Because these employees worked from home, telework (full disclosure: I’m teleworking from home as I write) gets a bad name. The real issue, however,  is what work gets done, not where the work is done. Good managers make sure the work gets done in or out of the office.

“Like anything else, if it’s not well managed things can go wrong and you can have problems,” said John Palguta, a vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, which studies federal workplace issues. “You can have folks in the office down the hall from the supervisor, surfing the Internet and not being productive.”

Nonetheless, reports of goofing-off teleworkers can hurt the effort to make Uncle Sam’s shop more nimble and more productive by allowing his staff to work outside of the office.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), long a proponent of telework, was so angered by a related article Lisa published this week that he said, “Employees that have been abusing telework and committing time fraud should be fired today.”

His letter to Penny Pritzker, secretary of the Commerce Department, which includes PTO, said agency managers who sought to hide information about telework abuse also should be fired. “If the [Justice] department determines criminal fraud has occurred,” he added, those responsible “should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Todd Elmer, PTO’s chief communications officer, called the  telework program “a proven success story.” He cited a 2012 IG audit that said the program “is succeeding as a business strategy.”

“But even with proven success stories, the USPTO is always looking for ways to continue improving the management of its workforce and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its operations,” he added.

Elmer said program improvements have been implemented, including “steps taken to improve supervision of patent examiners.”

Read more in the Federal Diary online Tuesday night and in Wednesday’s print editions of The Washington Post.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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