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One Year After Scathing Report of Abuses, Patent Office Telecommuters Win Review Panel's Blessing

National Academy finds program to be mostly healthy, backs small improvements in controls against time-card abuse.

The telecommuting program at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office received close to a clean bill of health from an outside panel appointed last year to examine reports that some of the agency’s 8,500 patent examiners had filed inaccurate time and attendance reports.

The nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration on Friday released a long-anticipated report saying the agency should continue its telework program while augmenting management controls.

“As part of its recruitment and retention strategy, the USPTO has adopted innovative workplace strategies designed to make working at the agency more attractive, including instituting a corporate-wide telework program,” NAPA said in a summary. The USPTO’s leadership in adapting this program to the needs of a 21st century government agency has paved the way for adoption of telework at other federal agencies. In recent years, the USPTO has consistently ranked among the highest in the ‘Best Places to Work in the Federal Government’ survey issued by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, in part because of telework.” 

The criticism arose last year when the Commerce Department inspector general reported that some employees working from home were overstating their hours; “end-loading” (holding off on work until the final days of a reporting quarter and thereby harming quality); and “mortgaging,” or submitting time-card claims for work not yet completed. Over the previous four fiscal years, the IG said, 15 percent to 20 percent of examiners were threatening the quality of patent examining through such practices as end-loading their actual work.

NAPA, by request of the agency, convened five academy fellows supported by specialists at Grant Thornton LLP for a nine-month review that included interviews with Patent Office managers and employee organizations. “The panel determined that the telework program has provided important benefits to the USPTO, including saving money, enhancing employee quality of life, potentially increasing recruitment and retention and ensuring on-going work during emergencies,” the report said. “The panel found that the USPTO has the controls in place to manage time and attendance for both on-site workers and teleworkers.”

Among 30 recommendations for improvements were proposals that the Patent Office:

  • Continue its internal review of procedures to confirm that supervisors know the examiners are actively engaged in their work;
  •  Continue its “refresher” training in management practices for time-and-attendance procedures (including a mandate for examiners to “re-sign” their telecommuting agreements every two years);
  • Establish separate probationary/conditional periods for beginning full-time teleworkers under which full-time teleworkers are required to maintain “fully successful” status for two years after completing their training to remain eligible to telecommute; and,
  • Continue to develop ways to measure and improve the quality of the examination process and its production standards.

IG spokesman Clark Reid told Government Executive his office, led by acting Inspector General David Smith since the departure of Todd Zinser in June, “is pleased that USPTO reached out to the academy to assess its process for time and attendance, and we are currently reviewing the report.”

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