Cost estimates cause trouble for telework bill

A Congressional Budget Office estimate that the 2010 Telework Improvements Act would cost agencies $2 million this year and $30 million between 2010 and 2015 contributed to the bill's failure to pass the House, according to a public policy organization.

The CBO report and a general feeling the bill might cost too much held it back from receiving the two-thirds vote it needed to clear the chamber last week, said Katie Corrigan, director of Workplace Flexibility 2010, a public policy initiative at Georgetown Law School. Corrigan's group and other participants in a New America Foundation event Thursday on the future of workplace flexibility have been promoting the cost savings and productivity benefits of telework and other workplace flexibilities, but their efforts have not translated to legislative action.

"There is so much data out there showing how great these benefits can be," Corrigan said. "But talk about a disconnect. We need to talk about the return on investment. A link has to be made in how we show bang for the buck."

Based on information from the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration, CBO estimated implementing the Telework Improvements Act actually would increase administrative costs by $30 million during the next five years. That sum includes the cost of notifying employees of their eligibility to participate in telework programs, preparing regulations, providing guidance and preparing a federal study on the effectiveness of telework, CBO stated.

Kathleen Christensen, founder and director of the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families Program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, said the federal government has been a pioneering force for workplace flexibility. Federal agencies were first to adopt flex time and historically had the most comprehensive and aggressive telecommuting programs.

But now the private sector is catching up and the federal government is falling behind, panelists said during the event. Corrigan said this trend is unfortunate and should be reversed, because the federal government is a great place to conduct workplace flexibility pilot programs, particularly for jobs that don't naturally seem conducive to flexibility.

"We need to pay close attention to Congress' perception," Corrigan said. "Do they consider [flexibility initiatives] frivolous exercises or the important ones they are?"

Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, said proponents of flexibility in the federal workplace must communicate with taxpayers so they understand the benefits for all citizens and agencies, not just for federal employees who already are the subject of private sector envy.

"It is definitely a bit of a messaging problem," Boushey said.

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