Telework: Trendy Hot Issue, Long Term Policy Goal or Political Plum?

OPM’s new Director launched a “telework” initiative as his first leap into Federal human resources management. People are wondering, “What the heck is this about?”

After eight conservative years, a merit system most agree needs work, NSPS and MaxHR meltdowns in the courts, and a President saying he’ll hire 600,000 new Feds, among other important stuff, OPM’s new director’s first proclamation is about “telework”?  What’s up over at E Street?

A good place to start our journey of understanding may be with the euphemism that started out as “Work-at-Home” evolved next into “Flexiplace” and more recently morphed into the easier to say and apparently easier to sell “Telework”.

Also fun to consider is its origin as a concept.  The idea seems to have gotten its start as the brainchild of a suburban Washington, DC congressman who watched all those GS 11-15s take their wallets with them on a commute out of the home district and then opened them in DC, which doesn’t even have a voting member of the Hill club.  Now we can’t have that, can we?  To this day, the Hill crowd most interested in telework are Representatives in suburban Maryland and Virginia.

In that vein, OPM Director John Berry, himself, is a former staffer of a powerful suburban Maryland Congressman. But I’m sure there’s no connection or payback involved. After all, isn’t telework an issue critical to national defense as suggested by OPM’s website?

By the way, a word search of OPM’s web site produces the word transparency rarely but it’s used in connection to this issue. Let’s keep an eye on that. I suspect the frequency of the word “transparency” in government press releases and on websites will blossom as we move forward.

What’s the Scope of All This?

Who cares about telework other than those who want to stay home and the DC suburban Representatives whose principal worry is really their concern for traffic, gas prices and Continuity of Operations (COOP) (Right?). After all, lots of Feds can’t play.

Of course, we could all go to our USPS letter carrier’s home and pick up the mail there for a change. That would certainly save the government some money.  Or Perdue might bring those chickens to the kitchens or living rooms of Federal meat inspectors for a quick look. I’ll admit, however, that the Navy might have difficulty bringing a carrier into the neighborhood for a little needed welding although that’s probably negative thinking.

I do wonder what the universe is for this effort and whether it’s worth the hoopla. OPM says that only about 5% of the 1.9 million Feds are involved in some way and it must be higher but what’s the maximum. I haven’t seen any mention of OPM guidance about who should or shouldn’t play.

Who’s Eligible?

The big issues involving an individual’s ability to engage in telework appear to surround computer system security and managerial concerns about productivity, maintaining contact and long distance dealings. Of course, support staffers probably can’t play unless we outfit the basement with copy machines and file cabinets. (Maybe this is a vast Xerox, Ricoh and Toshiba conspiracy). The unions want to play and have filed cases to get the right to do so. I would bet the average Federal manager would put union reps high on their list of people to send home, probably full time if they could. But, alas, so far the FLRA says that what unions do isn’t “work” and therefore they can’t possibly telework. Do you think I’m kidding?  Look up the cases. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

So what’s it come down to? In the end that most heinous concept of all, management discretion, decides who goes home and who doesn’t.

Berry’s Plan

The OPM press release describing the Director’s initiative calls it “Berry’s Plan”. Come on folks, a little ownership of the new guy’s ideas is in order. After all, he’ll likely be around for a while.

The “Berry Plan” calls for OPM to:

  • Convene an advisory group of telework program managers to draw on their knowledge and expertise in formulating standards for telework policies;
  • Direct agencies to submit telework policies for review against a set of standards crafted by the advisory group; OPM would provide technical assistance to help agencies meet the standards; OPM also would review the standards every three years to ensure continued adherence to the standards;
  • Encourage each agency to establish the position of Telework Managing Officer, who would ensure 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, broadly accessible training to remove managerial resistance to having staff work “out of sight” and to ensure managers and employees alike are trained and prepared to use telework successfully.

So What’s the Problem?

Well, I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativism (A la Spiro T.) but a quick review of the plan identifies 5 likely problems.

  1. It creates an advisory group which will inevitably involve another set of regularly scheduled meetings in DC. Aren’t there better things to do?
  2. It appears to put OPM in charge of Telework while it lags behind in other areas. Does this create the telework police?
  3. It establishes mandatory positions. We already have obligatory CHICOs, CFOs, CIOs, EEODs, and a multitude of other have-to-have jobs. Do we need another self perpetuating dead ended structure?
  4. It sets up an appeal system. No problem here. Everyone knows we don’t have enough appeal systems now. What’s wrong with the current agency or negotiated groievance procedure? OOPS! I forgot! Without an appeal system, what would the TMO (Telework Managing Officer) do? On that note, can I suggest a new name for the job? How about we call it the TeleWork Establishing and Regulating Position? You figure out the acronym.
  5. It calls for “high-quality, broadly accessible training” but doesn’t say anything about paying for it or what priority it might have compared to ethics, sexual harassment, or other mandated programs. Is this one more unfunded mandate?

Get a Grip, OPM!

I’m really not opposed to telework. I do it myself most days. What should concern us is the creation of a self propelled bureaucracy that looks like it’s on its way into some serious poking into the day to day supervisors’ and managers’ agenda and decision-making at a substantial cost to the taxpayer. Encouraging is always better than mandating. As the new leadership at OPM settles in, let’s hope this doesn’t set a trend.

Mr. Berry came into Federal management as a political in higher level jobs without the benefit of having been a first line supervisor. Instead of an advisory group of dilettantes, why not ask a bunch of supervisors with real jobs to participate and drive the agenda?

Again, any opinion expressed herein is mine and doesn’t represent people  work with or for, the publisher of this site or anyone else.

About the Author

Bob Gilson is a consultant with a specialty in working with and training Federal agencies to resolve employee problems at all levels. A retired agency labor and employee relations director, Bob has authored or co-authored a number of books dealing with Federal issues and also conducts training seminars.