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Tax Office Champions Teleworking, While Pentagon Backs Away

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Teleworking may be the greatest thing since the Pony Express.

At least, that's the impression given by proponents of allowing federal employees to work from home or other remote locations.

"It is tremendous," says J. Russell George, the inspector general for tax administration in the Treasury Department.

Yet, less than 8 percent of those eligible to telework did so in 2007 and the total number declined by 14 percent from the preceding year, according to an Office of Personnel Management report.

So what's happening?

For one thing, the Pentagon is a big drag on the numbers. Defense officials decided to reduce teleworking for security reasons, and their numbers dropped by half. And NASA, with all those rocket scientists, previously hadn't counted their teleworkers correctly, so their stats fell when they finally figured out who was working where.

Here are some highlights from the report:

-- Most federal agencies have expanded their telework programs, or at least they have held steady.

-- 60 percent of federal agencies had "fully integrated telework into emergency planning" in 2007, compared with 42 percent in 2006 and 35 percent in 2005.

-- Nonetheless, the number of teleworkers dropped from 110,592 in 2006 to 94,643 in 2007.

That drop was primarily caused by the Pentagon's decision to retreat from the teleworking vanguard. It had 34,880 teleworkers in 2006, but that number fell by almost half, to 17,921, the next year.

The report, released in December, gives two reasons, neither of which fully explains that significant cutback.

"First, DOD is on the frontlines of United States war efforts, and all resources are tightly controlled," the report explains. "Second, and very closely related, in this wartime environment, with even civilian employees on the front lines, DOD is extremely concerned about information and data security.

But this begs the question because the nation was at war and had data security concerns both years. Did the environment change that much from one year to the next? If not, then why was 2006 a much better year for Pentagon teleworking than 2007?

Defense officials did not provide a more detailed answer to that question. Whatever the full explanation, the report provided the bottom line: "For the time being, at least, in this environment, DOD has determined that its mission is not best served by a growing telework program."

Meanwhile, the brainiacs at NASA simply did a better job of counting teleworkers in 2007 than they did the year before. Using better tracking methods, the space agency determined that in 2007, "a total of 825 eligible full- and part-time employees were actually teleworking. In 2006 NASA reported 10,118 teleworkers, but indicates these numbers were not accurate due to insufficient tracking in place at that time," the OPM reported.

Perhaps the current champion among government agencies when it comes to teleworking is the Inspector General for Tax Administration office. About 86 percent of its employees telework.

As a result, the agency was able to close a few offices, said Jennifer Donnan, the chief of operations for the Office of Mission Support, who helped get the program going and who generally works at home in Atlanta. "Our productivity levels have gone up every year exponentially," she said.

More than simply allowing workers to communicate via e-mail, the inspector general's office moved to the next step and purchased computer video cameras for the staff, all of whom have agency laptops. The cameras make for more efficient meetings with good personal interaction, said Larry A. Koskinen, an associate inspector general, who telecommutes.

About $7,000 was saved in travel costs in one conference conducted online using the cameras.

"It's really pretty extraordinary," said Koskinen, who also notes that agencies should not simply abandon face-to-face communication.

While Russell George's office is big on teleworking, some managers in other agencies have been slow to embrace it because they feel they need to see their workers to manage them.

For teleworking to work, bosses need to know how to manage by the work produced, says Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, an industry-funded organization that promotes working remotely. And she has a question for those managers who think they are being effective supervisors when they roam their offices, seeing who is at their desks.

How do you really know they are working while they in the office?

The report can be found here: http://www.telework.gov/Reports_and_Studies/Annual_Reports/2008teleworkreport.pdf

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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