A new independent review of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s award-winning telework program found a patent system that stresses “quantitative production over quality” and questions whether examiners are working hard enough.
The eight-month study released Friday by the National Academy of Public Administration — done in response to a Washington Post report on a coverup of time and attendance fraud among patent examiners — also found that managers still have limited power to monitor when and how much employees are working. And right now, a supervisor has no authority to require that a poor performer who works at home be brought back to headquarters to be monitored more closely.
“We were struck by the supervisors’ need for better backing,” said David Chu, who led a panel of five public policy experts conducting the study. “They need more tools and more authority.”
Patent officials have improved oversight somewhat in the past year, the report found, including making it harder for examiners to get credit for work they have not submitted and requiring examiners to use an electronic device to indicate when they’re at their computers. But the device is only required for some employees.
“Current supervisory tools do not provide sufficient information on when employees are working,” the report concluded. “Examiners only have to notify their supervisors of how many hours they plan to work, not the actual hours they will be at work.”
The nonprofit academy’s 300-page report, based on eight months of research and interviews with patent office employees, praised the telework program as a model in the federal government that allows a majority of examiners to work from home. It recommends that telework continue as a valuable tool to attract top-tier employees. That’s partly because the review did not find a difference in the quality or quantity of patent reviews and levels of supervision between those who work from home and those who don’t.
But the academy, a group of policy experts who are often called in to review government programs, questioned the patent office’s production quotas for examiners, most of which have not changed since 1976.
In recent years, examiners have been given more time — two-and-half hours on average — to examine patents, a policy questioned by the reviewers.
“This one-size-fits-all approach may provide more time than necessary for less-complex patent applications,” the review found, noting that the technological advances like Internet search engines should make examinations take less time, not more.
After The Post report in August 2014, prompted by multiple whistleblower complaints, the patent office began an internal investigation of its telework program.
That investigation found that some of the 8,300 patent examiners, about half of whom work from home full time, repeatedly lied about the hours they were putting in, and many were receiving bonuses for work they didn’t do. And when supervisors had evidence of fraud and asked to have the employees’ computer records pulled, they were rebuffed by top agency officials, ensuring that few cheaters were disciplined, investigators found.
But when it came time for the patent office to turn over the findings to its outside watchdog, the most damaging revelations had disappeared.
The Patent Office released a statement Friday responding to the academy’s report:
“We are pleased that the report … offers a number of recommendations by which the telework programs … could potentially continue to improve even further,” said the statement from spokesman Todd Elmer. “The USPTO is carefully studying all of the report’s findings and recommendations.”
The report released Friday recommends that the agency bring in more experts to look at the quality of its patent reviews. This conclusion echoes a highly critical report three months ago from the Commerce Department Inspector General’s office, which found that patent officials have almost no way of knowing whether examiners are doing their jobs well.
That inspector general found overall deficiencies with quality assurance that put at risk the federal government’s role in protecting new ideas through the issuance of patents and trademarks.
“There isn’t an outcome-oriented sense of metrics. That ought to be developed,” Chu said of the current system.
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