U.S. must do better at enabling federal employees to telework
THIS TIME IT was record-breaking snowfalls that forced the federal government to close. Next time, it could be any number of natural or man-made events that keep federal employees from venturing into their offices.
But empty downtown buildings should not create a government standstill. And it should not take a natural disaster or terrorist attack to highlight the importance of having federal employees plugged in and ready to do the government's work from home.
According to the Office of Personnel Management, roughly 30 percent of the federal workforce at some point during the past week worked from home. This is an improvement from the roughly 1 percent who were able to telework during the massive 1996 snowstorm that paralyzed Washington. It is still not good enough.
The vast majority of homes in the Washington area are equipped with computers and Internet service, not to mention land-lines and cellphones. Federal employees should be encouraged to use these tools to remain productive when they are unable to come into the office.
There are advantages to allowing government employees to work from home even when they are not snowbound. For example, notorious Washington traffic jams could be eased by permitting telecommuting. Lost workdays due to lack of child care could be also be decreased. Savings could also be realized. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office started a telework program more than a decade ago with 18 attorneys; today, 4,000 PTO employees spend at least part of their workweek toiling at home. The agency reports that it has saved $11 million by not having to acquire additional office space because of its homework-friendly approach. It has also reported higher morale and steady productivity.
John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, has done a commendable job advocating teleworking; he has set a goal of increasing the government's telework capabilities by 50 percent by the end of 2011. His office should be given the authority, under emergency circumstances such as those experienced last week, to require teleworking for eligible employees.
Reps. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) have proposed legislation that would help nudge the government toward that goal while recognizing that each agency must choose an approach that makes sense for its particular mission and cybersecurity needs.