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Telework effort hampered by agencies' mixed messages

The government’s telework initiative at federal agencies has suffered because of a lack of uniform guidance from the two departments charged with leading the effort, according to the General Accounting Office.

The government's telework initiative at federal agencies has suffered because of a lack of uniform guidance from the two departments charged with leading the effort, according to the General Accounting Office.

Three years ago, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., pushed legislation through Congress that required agencies to expand their efforts to create teleworking opportunities for federal employees. Under his plan, 75 percent of the federal workforce would telework by the end of 2003. But a report on federal telework efforts published in January 2003 by the Office of Personnel Management found that just 5 percent of federal workers took part in teleworking programs in 2002.

According to GAO, although OPM and the General Services Administration have taken several measures to increase telecommuting in the federal workplace, their differing views on some issues have served as a barrier to widespread use of telework initiatives. For example, while GSA allows an employee to take care of a child while teleworking as long as doing so doesn't interfere with work, at one time OPM frowned upon having children at home when an employee teleworked. "This lack of coordination created confusion for federal agencies in implementing their individual telework programs," GAO said in its report (03-679). OPM recently changed its policy, and now specifies that employees not engage in care-giving activities while teleworking.

And, as lead agencies for the governmentwide telework initiative, the two agencies have yet to develop a memorandum of understanding or any other formal agreement outlining their responsibilities or indicating which agency will provide what service, resource or guidance, GAO found.

"Despite the fact that GSA and OPM hold quarterly partnership meetings to discuss telework-related issues in the federal government, officials from both agencies told us that very little coordination has occurred at these meetings," the report said. "Rather, the meetings have actually served as a means to raise differences of opinion that have been identified by either agency, but the resolution of those differences has proven to be difficult."

Instead of coordinating efforts, the two agencies use the meetings to update each other on the status of the two agencies' independent governmentwide telework efforts, according to GAO.

The watchdog agency recommended that GSA Administrator Stephen Perry and OPM Director Kay Coles James "improve coordination of their efforts to provide federal agencies with consistent, inclusive, unambiguous support and guidance related to telework." The two agencies should clearly outline their responsibilities and resolve existing differences.

In a joint written response, Perry and James took issue with GAO's characterization of their collaborative efforts, as well as its conclusion that a lack of coordination led to confusion when agencies set out to implement their telework programs.

"We are particularly taken aback by this finding, given the efforts we have made in promoting telework," the two leaders wrote. "OPM and GSA work together as a team while recognizing our respective areas of responsibilities."

The two agencies are considering a memorandum of understanding that would "clearly designate each agency's roles and responsibilities."