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OPM Chief Thinks Telecommuting Has a Nice Ring to It

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Deep inside the current swine flu scare, there may be a silver lining for federal employees -- greater acceptance of telework in musty bureaucracies.

Although increased telecommuting has been a federal workplace goal for many years, statistics show a difference between theory and practice. Part of the problem has been managers who are reluctant to approve at-home working arrangements because they can't see -- which really means they don't trust -- staffers who aren't in their cubicles.

John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, wants to change that mind-set. And the swine flu emergency provides a timely, if unfortunate, backdrop to showcase the need for agencies to continue government operations if circumstances make working in the office risky.

Saying "I'm here to put some giddyap into telework," Berry yesterday announced a plan to boost telecommuting by federal employees.

Berry said his plan would:

-- Convene an advisory group of telework program managers to develop government-wide standards for telecommuting.

-- Direct agencies to submit telework policies for review against standards crafted by the advisory panel.

-- Encourage each agency to establish a telework managing officer, who would ensure that telework policies are applied fairly and supported by agency managers.

-- Encourage agencies to establish an effective and transparent appeals process for employees whose requests for telework or other flexible work arrangements are denied.

-- Assure the provision of high-quality training to remove managerial resistance and to ensure managers and employees are trained and prepared to use telework successfully.

But Berry needs more than "giddyap" to make the potential of telework real for Frankie and Flo Fed. Despite the years of talk, just 7.6 percent of federal workers eligible to telework did so in 2007, according to an OPM report released in December.

If agencies carry out Berry's plan, its last three points -- on telework managing officers, the appeals process and managerial training -- could help boost that percentage by changing supervisors' attitudes.

"There still is a cultural problem," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Northern Virginia Democrat who has many constituents working in federal agencies. He thinks that it's generational. "Younger managers get it," he added. "There are some of the older school who feel, 'If I can't see you, you're washing the dog or watching soap operas.' "

And in case Berry hasn't found out during his few weeks on the job, he might learn that agencies don't always do what OPM recommends.

One factor that will make Berry's job easier is the White House support he has in his effort to, as an OPM statement says, "jumpstart agency telework programs out of a plodding first gear into a cruising fifth gear." He recently met with President Obama and Cabinet officers to get the backing of the very top federal managers for telework, in the hope that will flow downhill to the immediate supervisors whose buy-in is needed to make Berry's plan work.

The strategy is drawn from legislation sponsored by Connolly and Democratic Reps. John Sarbanes (Md.), Danny K. Davis (Ill.), Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) and Republican Frank R. Wolf (Va). Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) have introduced a similar bill.

When Akaka introduced his bill last month, he recalled a telework hearing held by the subcommittee on oversight of government management, the federal workforce and the District of Columbia that he chairs, where witnesses cited "agency leadership and management resistance as the greatest barriers to the development of robust telework policies."

In addition to some of the items in Berry's plan, the House bill would ensure that eligible federal employees would be allowed to telecommute at least 20 percent of the time.

Sarbanes, who joined Berry at a Capitol Hill news briefing along with Connolly, called Berry's plan a "strong start" and said he wants Congress to act quickly to codify it into law.

"First and foremost, these policies are about good governance," Sarbanes said. "The federal government should use telework as a powerful recruitment and retention tool to compete with the private sector for the best and brightest workers. Federal telework is also sound transportation policy for this region because it will help mitigate traffic congestion, reduce carbon emissions and improve the quality of life for all commuters."

You can get more information about telework at http://www.opm.gov. The House and Senate bills can be found at http://www.thomas.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:H.R.1722: and http://www.thomas.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:S.707:

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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