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Obama administration needs to work more on telecommuting, report says

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, July 1, 2010; B03

It's not exactly a case of all hat and no cattle, but when it comes to teleworking, Uncle Sam needs to put more action where his mouth is.

That's one conclusion of a report on government teleworking efforts that the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton planned to issue Thursday.

The partnership, a nonprofit organization that focuses on federal workplace issues, and the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm welcome efforts by the Obama administration and Congress to promote teleworking.

"Yet, to date, all of the talk about the desirability of telework in government has led to insufficient progress and action," the report says.

It urges the government to be much more aggressive about implementing telework "and not be satisfied with small incremental advances." Justin Johnson, the Office of Personnel Management's deputy chief of staff, said the agency's "efforts to promote telework are making a difference."

The partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton would like to see 600,000 workers teleworking by 2014. Now, "less than 6 percent of all full-time federal workers telework even one day a month," according to the report, citing Office of Personnel Management data. But OPM said 400,000 employees now telework "some," meaning less than one full day a week.

Management resistance is one big reason telework is not used more. That "was the most common barrier," the researchers found.

To dig deeper into that resistance, they held focus groups with agency executives and members of the Senior Executives Association. "All expressed concerns about the impact of workplace flexibility on mission, including limited productivity of teleworkers," the report says.

Managers aren't opposed to telework, Senior Executives Association President Carol A. Bonosaro told the Federal Diary. She said they want "an effective means for measuring performance" and a system to ensure "that employees are held accountable for performing their duties when off-site.

"These concerns will be mitigated," she added in an e-mail, "when OPM and agencies offer a clear set of expectations for managers and employees re: flexible work arrangements and provide training for managers in the implementation of flexwork policies."

The excuse that "I can't manage performance that I can't see" is one of five "myths" about telework that the report seeks to bust. "People must be measured on the basis of their results and not on the basis of face time," it says.

This really points to the government's larger problems with performance management. Some managers might be unable to effectively measure the performance of staff members stationed a few feet away.

"The performance management challenge goes beyond flexible work arrangements and must be addressed more broadly to make federal performance measurement more results-based," the report says.

Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service's president and chief executive, said some managers "use physical presence as a proxy for working." (The partnership and The Post have print and online content-sharing collaborations.)

Stier said managers need more training in areas such as the Result Only Work Environment (ROWE) pilot project that OPM Director John Berry started in his agency. ROWE allows employees to work when and where they want, as long as they get the job done.

Berry has made telework a priority and OPM has an attractive, informative Web site, telework.gov. The Senate approved legislation in May that would promote teleworking in the government and the House probably will pass a bill soon.

Nonetheless, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a sponsor of the legislation, answered with a firm no when asked whether the government is moving aggressively enough on implementing telework. "While we all say we support telework, it remains an aspirational goal," he said.

Once that goal is realized, the government will benefit from improved recruitment and retention of employees and improved service to customers, through changes such as extended hours of operation, said Abe Zwany, a Booz Allen Hamilton senior vice president.

If government offices must close because of a terrorist attack or snowstorms, as happened this year, telework would allow government functions to continue.

But only 56 percent of federal agencies have integrated telework in their formal continuity of operations plans, athe report says.

The bright light is this cloudy picture is the Patent and Trademark Office, where 82.7 percent of its employees are eligible to telework, government figures show. Nearly half do so at least once a week and more than a third use it three days a week.

"Telework has enabled the PTO to avoid spending an additional $11 million in the purchase of new office space," the report says. That's probably an incentive any manager can appreciate.

The report is available at the Partnership's Web site, http://www.ourpublicservice.org.

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