Federal telework has ‘some barriers’ to success, GAO says

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The Government Accountability Office recently made recommendations to four federal agencies that it said would improve telework agreements and data reporting among the federal government’s growing number of remote workers.

A 63-page report released Monday by GAO analyzed the telework management practices of the Department of Education, Department of Labor, General Services Administration, and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Yvonne Jones, director of strategic issues for GAO and author of the report, said that the four agencies “generally” met the provisions of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, but added there were “some barriers” to their remote workers’ success.

These barriers included a lack of proper training, lack of annual agreement reviews, and managerial resistance to remote workers despite agency goals, according to Jones.

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which encourages remote work among federal agencies and requires they develop formal telework policies and the Office of Personnel Management develop tools to improve telework obstacles and improve how data is reported to Congress.

GAO made 10 recommendations to the four agencies, including improvements to telework data and requirements that ensure supervisors complete telework training. Three of the four responded positively to the recommendations.

The Department of Education will implement a training verification system by June 30 of this year, according to Denise Carter, the department’s acting assistant secretary for management.
Carter also told GAO that the department will “take the necessary steps” to regularly update employee eligibility status.

DOE has not been reporting remote worker eligibility data as part of the act, GAO added.

SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White said the commission agreed on three points of the report: Its telework policy should require greater documentation, it needs to ensure supervisors complete telework training prior to employee agreements, and its training system does not interface electronically with its telework program system.

GSA administrator Denise Turner Roth said that the agency agrees with the recommendations made to GSA and is developing a “comprehensive plan” to address these recommendations.

The Department of Labor did not respond to GAO.

In a separate series of recommendations, GAO also found that OPM had its own quality issues in reporting telework data.

In its three-page response to the report, OPM associate director for employee services Mark Reinhold said the office disagreed with both recommendations to the agency, including implementing a feedback mechanism to analyze telework barriers.

He also said that OPM did not agree with GAO’s recommendation of implementing changes to year-over-year data.

“Given the limited resources available, OPM is not in a position to further expand upon materials and tools for areas that are not required by the Telework Enhancement Act,” Reinhold wrote.

The federal government has more than 400,000 teleworkers, largely as a result of the 2010 law and other recent efforts to encourage remote working as a preventative measure for inclement weather and other unforeseen events.

The report found that three of the four agencies do not require telework training prior to approving remote worker agreements, which could lead managers to be unfamiliar with certain policies.

“By not requiring regular review of telework agreements, these agencies cannot be assured that the agreements reflect and support their current business needs,” Jones wrote in the report.

Some managers may bypass proper training and some agencies may not review telework agreements annually, Jones added. Some managers may also discourage telework despite agency goals, which GOA officials said could hamper remote productivity.

All use an electronic system to track remote work agreements but but the Department of Labor, which uses a manual system that GAO said limits its ability to access accurate, real-time telework data.

The audit, completed between November 2015 and February of this year,  used the four agencies as case studies based on agency size and the size of their remote workforce.

It comes at a time when the number of employees working remotely continues to grow.

The number of federal employees who work remotely has risen from 301,372 in fiscal 2012 to 427,450 in fiscal 2015, according to GAO.

The report was sent to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as well as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

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Department of Education, General Services Administration (GSA), Government Accountability Office (GAO), Securities and Exchange Commission, Telework Enhancement Act of 2010
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