Telework is vital to government operations, chiefs say

John Streufert of State participated in Thursday’s leadership event. John Streufert of State participated in Thursday’s leadership event. Chris Flynn

Despite indications that telework is losing momentum in government, top executives at five agencies promoted the practice and said managers should make it possible for more employees to work from home.

"There's a lot of talk about the trouble of commuting to work, but to me the real national security issue is if we had something that disrupted the ability of the federal workforce to get to the office, could we continue to provide the services of government? I think you'd find that many departments and agencies would have problems," said John Streufert, deputy chief information officer for information security at the State Department.

Streufert and other department leaders participated in a wide-ranging panel discussion of chief executive concerns during a Government Executive leadership briefing on Thursday. All five officials said agencies need to do more to promote telecommuting and to create a more flexible workforce.

"When managers say they are concerned about security that is a concern, but the underlying issue frequently is they just don't like teleworking," said Jeffrey Neal, chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department. Whether terrorism or natural disaster disrupts government business the ability of federal agencies to continue operations is critical, he said.

"There are some things you can prevent and some things you can't prevent. We can't prevent a hurricane from coming into the country. That preparedness we get from being able to operate the government from literally tens of thousands of locations is incredible. It's something we have to keep pressing managers to accept," Neal said.

To manage information security concerns, the Veterans Affairs Department has equipped about 60,000 of its 300,000 employees with technology enabling them to work remotely without compromising security, said Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology at the department.

"We pretty much supply everyone with government-furnished equipment if they're going to telework. We do a lot of encryption of laptops at VA," he said, but noted security becomes more problematic for employees who work from home using their personal computers. In those cases, VA usually has to limit teleworkers' access to government systems to protect sensitive information, he said.

Hugh Hurwitz, the senior procurement executive at the Education Department, said he is surprised more agencies don't assign telework equipment to all employees. In his previous position at the Food and Drug Administration, he implemented a policy that required all but a small number of employees to be issued laptops for use in the office or elsewhere.

"We actually did a reverse auction and got a tremendous price on laptops," Hurwitz said. "It was cheaper to buy them that way than it had been to buy the individual desktops we'd been buying. In the end, it saves the agency a lot of money."

During Thursday's breakfast, all the chiefs said a major concern was hiring and retaining talented employees. Human capital "is probably the most overlooked issue," said Mark Easton, deputy chief financial officer at the Defense Department. "When we look at financial management problems, we tend to look for silver bullets -- we look for systems that will fix our problems, but oftentimes we neglect the people."

Neal said a critical issue in addressing personnel and skills shortfalls is ensuring hiring managers invest more time in hiring.

"For some reason, in the federal government you find managers who think that the job of hiring people is HR's job. If you're a hiring manager and you think that, then shame on you."

Managers must be involved in every step of the process, from developing meaningful job definitions to vetting applicants. "The job of hiring is a manager's job. If someone is in a leadership role and they don't use a significant part of their time dealing with talent issues, with hiring and developing people you already have, then they're failing as leaders," Neal said.

Baker, who was CEO of a mid-size technology services company before rejoining government in the Obama administration, said a key difference between government and the private sector is the use and value of financial data.

"As a CEO in the private sector you have information at least weekly that tells you exactly where your organization is, and if you're really good, you can close your books daily," he said.

"We've got to completely change the way we look at financial management -- get our managers much more interested in the actual financial management of what they're doing, and what it's indicating about how they operate. In the private sector you pay a lot of attention to financial management and what it's telling you about where you are and where you're going," Baker said.

"It's the most clear score card in the private sector and I don't think it's much of a score card at all in government," Baker said.

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