GAO: New time and attendance systems efficient, but require oversight

New automated systems designed to help track time and attendance at work have made federal agencies more efficient, but are also vulnerable to misuse, according to the General Accounting Office.

GAO published guidelines (GAO-03-352G) earlier this month to address how civilian agencies and the military should manage data on time and attendance, at a time when the 1998 Government Paperwork Elimination Act has encouraged more agencies to begin using electronic tracking systems.

Regardless of whether agencies and the military are using electronic or paper methods of tracking hourly employees, they need to "implement and maintain well-defined internal control activities that provide management with the confidence that the system is working as designed," the guidelines said.

Internal controls should provide "reasonable assurance" that information about employees' time and attendance at work is complete, accurate and supported by evidence that a supervisor has reviewed and approved the time card.

The method of monitoring employee time and attendance underwent increased scrutiny during the Clinton administration as part of then-Vice President Al Gore's efforts to reinvent government. At the time, nearly all government workers had to sign in and out every day, even if they were not paid on an hourly basis, said John Kamensky, who was involved in the reinvention efforts and is now the director of the Managing for Results Practice at IBM Business Consulting Services.

While tracking time might work well for employees who need to be on the job during specific hours, it does not work as well for other government employees, Kamensky said. The practice was counterproductive for employees such as government scientists, who worked on their own schedules and were employed to come up with creative ideas, whether they thought of the ideas in the shower or in the office, he added.

In 1996, GAO changed governmentwide rules to encourage agencies to focus their energy on keeping track of hourly employees, according to Kamensky. But it will take time for the new standards to reach all corners of government, he said. "This was a big cultural change," he said. As of 2000, agencies had eliminated time sheets for 41 percent of nonhourly workers.

Many of the remaining tracking systems are automated and are more efficient because they often include editing devices to help managers detect flaws in the format, omissions and unreasonable data, according to GAO's new guidelines. But supervisors still need to remain vigilant and make sure that employees are not abusing the system. For instance, managers need to make sure that their method of signing off on computer time sheets with electronic signatures is secure from hackers.

"Fully automated systems may require fewer approvals than manual systems because of automated edits and control and the use of automated signatures," the guidelines said. "Nevertheless, the nature and extent of time and attendance approvals should be such that management has assurance that supervisors or other authorized officials know they are accountable for the approval of an employee's work time and absences."

Agency managers should compare the costs and benefits of an automated system and electronic signature before adopting them, the GAO guidelines added.

The new guidelines also provide agencies and the military with more ways to track employees who work on flexible schedules. For example, some employees can receive authorization to keep track of their own time in situations where they are traveling or working off-site and managers are not aware of their daily activities.

The guidelines recognize that active military personnel are "considered to be on duty 24 hours a day" and acknowledge that it is difficult, if not impossible" to constantly keep track of them. Even so, GAO states that military "superiors are expected to be aware of the presence and absence of service members for whom they are responsible." The guidelines suggest the military follow an "exception-based system" for active duty members, where on-the-job time and attendance is only recorded for personnel deviating from a normal schedule.

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