The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More feds are working from home. But no one has figured out whether that’s really a good thing.

(Mark Gail/ The Washington Post)
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About half of federal employees — 1 million people — are now eligible to work from home, either full time or a few days a week. A little more than a quarter of them actually do.

That’s a huge jump from 2010, when Congress passed legislation to encourage telework to save energy and commuting costs, boost productivity and attract top job candidates, as well as overcome managers’ resistance. Telework, once unthinkable in the must-show-your-fanny-in-the-seat culture of government, is now a go-to alternative to the office on snow days. Thousands of Washington-area employees are working from home to save commuting headaches during Metro’s SafeTrack project.

[The 9-5 day could end for many feds as Metro repairs make flexible schedules the norm]

The problem now, the Government Accountability Office says in a new report, is that agencies aren’t really backing up their claims that telework is benefiting them. So if you can’t effectively evaluate a program as big as this one, how do you really know it’s good for the government and should grow?

“Agencies continue to face challenges in quantifying the impact of telework, identifying costs incurred, and translating benefits into quantifiable cost savings,” GAO wrote in a review released last week.

“Without data on net benefits including cost savings associated with telework, agencies have incomplete information to determine the value of telework through assessing whether the benefits being achieved outweigh the costs incurred.”

[Next stop, home office: Agencies urged to step up telework to deal with Metro disruptions]

GAO studied telework policies at six large, medium and small agencies: the Agriculture Department, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., General Services Administration and the Merit Systems Protection Board. The study was requested by two House Democrats, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.).

All of the agencies cited positive effects of letting some of their employees work from home. But auditors found that the programs “had little data to support the benefits or costs associated with their telework programs.”

[New DOD policy encourages telework]

Adding to this squishiness, the Office of Personnel Management, which collects data on telework across the government, is collecting less and less of it, auditors found, in particular about any cost savings from work-at-home policies, a key benefit they’re supposed to bring.

OPM is supposed to help agencies set goals and figure out how to measure the benefits of allowing more people to work from home.

Some agencies cited quantifiable benefits. FDIC showed that it reduced the amount of office space it leases because many teleworkers don’t need their own dedicated desks when they are in the office. Agriculture officials identified 32 employees who accepted full-time telework arrangements instead of retirement, allowing the agency to keep experienced employees.

But some of the programs GAO reviewed could not provide supporting data on emissions reductions from fewer employees commuting, or reduced utility bills from lowered use of office space. Also, there are costs to setting up work-at-home arrangements, and costs savings. These are hard to come by, auditors wrote, and agencies have been required to report these less and less in recent years.

“In the current fiscal climate, cost savings is an important measure of the success of telework programs,” GAO wrote, citing personnel officials’ own guidance.

In response, agencies told auditors that calculating costs, energy use and environmental impacts from telework has been challenging.

Office of Personnel Management officials told GAO that most agencies have asked for only limited help in assessing their programs. They also said it is difficult to identify the effects of telework because the task requires “extensive research design and a staff with the expertise and skills to conduct rigorous evaluations.”

Despite these roadblocks, auditors urged OPM to offer agencies more help.

Read more:

He billed the government for four months of work he never did, and his boss never noticed

Patent office filters out worst abuses in report to its watchdog

House hearing probes telework abuses at U.S. Patent and Trademark Office