Winter 2013
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The Public Manager

OPM's 2012 Telework Report Shows Vast Opportunities for Improvement

Sunday, December 15, 2013

OPM partially reported on two of the seven reporting requirements in the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. OPM and agencies need to establish a completion date by which agencies will produce reliable data.

Telework offers various flexibilities for both employers and employees—including the capacity to continue operations during emergency events—as well as benefits to society, such as decreased energy use and pollution. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has previously demonstrated that having accurate and timely performance information is important for program implementation. However, decision makers often do not have the quality performance information they need to improve results. Based on recent GAO work, federal telework is one example where many agencies lack complete and reliable data.

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 made a large step forward in transforming the federal government's approach to telework by establishing a framework of requirements for executive agencies to meet in implementing telework. For example, agencies must notify all employees of their eligibility to telework and must establish agency telework participation goals for the measurement and reporting of results.

The act assigns the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) major leadership responsibilities. For example, the agency must submit an annual report, in consultation with the Chief Human Capital Officers (CHCO) Council, to Congress that addresses the telework program of each executive agency. The CHCO Council supports OPM in leading federal agencies in the strategic management of human capital, providing a forum for senior management officials to exchange human resources best practices, and informing the dialogue on civil service reform.

The act requires OPM to report on seven elements, including each agency's degree of telework participation and an assessment of each agency's progress in meeting its telework goals. The act also requires that GAO review OPM's first report and submit a report to Congress on the progress each executive agency has made toward the goals established pursuant to the act. GAO reviewed OPM's 2012 report to Congress and issued its report (GAO-13-298R) on June 28, 2013.

GAO found that OPM partially reported on two of the act's seven reporting requirements, but did not report agency information for the five remaining requirements. According to OPM, insufficient time had elapsed for all requirements of the act to be fully implemented. Additionally, OPM officials stated agencies appeared to face challenges in measuring outcomes for some other goals.

Agency Participation Goals

One element that OPM is to report on is agency goals for participation, such as the number and percent of eligible employees who telework a certain number of days per pay period. GAO found that OPM did not report this because it stated it was premature for some agencies to establish these goals and noted these goals were not required before the act's passage. Instead, OPM's report provides a baseline for future reporting on whether agencies meet their participation goals.

Another element requires OPM to report an assessment of each agency's progress in meeting other telework goals it may have established. The act does not explicitly state what these other goals must be, but cites examples such as the impact of telework on recruitment, retention, and energy use.

GAO found that OPM reported how many agencies had set other goals and how many had achieved cost savings in various categories such as rent and utilities. OPM's report did not include each agency's specific goal for these categories, if such a goal was established. OPM reported that agencies are having trouble measuring certain goal outcomes, and suggested the lack of readily available data and the difficulty measuring them may be deterring agencies from focusing attention on such goals.

Additionally, the act requires OPM's annual report to include relevant information about agency management efforts to promote telework. GAO found that OPM did not report this information to Congress, and OPM officials said they did not request the information from agencies due to an unclear understanding of roles and responsibilities within OPM. In preparation for its 2013 telework report, OPM asked agencies to address how their management promotes telework.

Further, OPM did not collect data on the amount of cost savings resulting from telework. GAO's review of OPM data found that about one-third of agencies reported achieving cost savings from telework in areas such as reduced rent or office space and transportation subsidies.

While OPM did not request specific dollar savings, three agencies chose to report a specific estimated amount. OPM officials stated they continue to consult with agencies to help them set standards and develop assessment tools. In addition, OPM was exploring possible data sources to help agencies establish and assess progress on some of the more difficult-to-measure goals, such as commuting and energy savings.

Data Reliability

OPM reported that many agencies do not have the ability to collect all requested telework data, which has consequences for data reliability. OPM has determined that the most reliable method for agency collection of telework data is through time and attendance tracking systems.

In its report, OPM described steps it has taken working with others to develop government-wide standards for collecting telework data, including a statement of work, which includes milestones and time frames. However, no completion date for the project has been established and OPM reported that a timetable for completion is not entirely under its control.

For example, some agencies cited funding as a challenge in adopting a government-wide telework data collection system in time for the completion date OPM set. According to OPM's statement of work, ideally, data collected through the automated system would be used for the 2015 report to Congress.

Agency Challenges


In preparing its report, OPM conducted focus groups, primarily with selected telework officials from large agencies. GAO also independently held a discussion group with telework representatives from small agencies. Telework representatives from both large and small agencies identified similar challenges in the implementation of telework programs. Participants in OPM's focus groups cited challenges that included resistance from managers, technology-related issues, and equity with which telework is available to employees. These participants commented that employees in professional positions tend to use telework to a greater extent than employees in administrative positions.

Some OPM focus group participants stated managers need to be trained to successfully apply telework programs in accordance with performance management standards. Participants also stated that it would be helpful to increase opportunities for collaboration with their senior leaders on telework issues. The small-agency officials who participated in our discussion group cited several of these same challenges and some additional ones, such as office coverage and budget and funding issues.

During GAO's discussion group, officials provided examples of the challenges they face to telework. One official said management resistance due to an "old school" management style of face-to-face interaction was a current challenge. In addition, a number of agency officials said it was expensive to implement information technology solutions to increase telework. For example, an official stated that during Hurricane Sandy the agency did not have enough software licenses to accommodate all teleworking employees, and obtaining additional licenses is very costly.

Several officials stated that office coverage was particularly challenging at small agencies because larger agencies likely have multiple individuals to cover a function. Officials also said funding for technology can be a challenge at small agencies. Because the technology may benefit fewer employees at a small agency than at a large agency, funding for these investments may be a lesser priority.

GAO Conclusions and Recommendations

GAO concluded that it remains uncertain when full compliance with the act's reporting requirements will be achieved. Yet OPM's 2012 report is clear that OPM sees its role as one of consulting with agencies to assist in developing and advancing telework programs. Such assistance is especially valuable for agencies that have not yet been able to establish telework goals.

GAO made three recommendations to OPM's acting director. First, when preparing its 2014 report, OPM should help agencies set goals if they are not yet able to report telework goals. This includes agencies that intend to establish goals on the outcomes of telework, but are not yet able to report on them. OPM should ask these agencies to report by what year they will be able to report goals including each agency's timetable for complete reporting and the status of action steps and milestones they established to gauge progress. OPM partially concurred with this recommendation and reiterated the act does not require other goals.

Second, GAO recommended OPM include in its 2014 report how much money agencies report saving as a result of telework, and the method the agency used to assess or verify the savings. OPM concurred and will ask agencies to provide this information and will report the results in its 2014 annual report.

Third, to improve the reliability of data collection, GAO recommended OPM work with the CHCO Council and its leadership to develop documented agreements and a timetable to complete an automated tracking system or other reliable data gathering method that can be validated by OPM. OPM stated it has already completed this recommendation. However, OPM has yet to establish documented agreements with the CHCO Council that would assure OPM that it will obtain the reliable agency data necessary to establish an automated tracking system.

Documented agreements between OPM and the CHCO Council would formally commit agencies to complete the necessary actions to adopt automated systems or other acceptable reliable data gathering methods. A completed timetable is needed because it could specify the milestones and required sub-tasks to be completed and their dates. Until OPM has taken these steps, OPM cannot be confident that it will be in a position to report reliable data in 2015 as it intends.

About the Author

James Cook is a senior analyst and has worked at the GAO since 2003. He has reviewed a wide variety of federal programs such as human capital, tax policy, the decennial census, and national preparedness. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Jeff DeMarco has worked at GAO since 2008 on a range of topics, including federal human capital management, the decennial census, and tax expenditures. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

William Doherty is an assistant director at the GAO, where he leads GAO audits dealing with strategic human capital management. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Yvonne Jones is a director in the strategic issues team at the GAO where she manages teams analyzing federal government human capital issues. She can be reached at [email protected].

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