Interior Department officials pushed back against assertions from Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., that it has been unable to produce "any meaningful data for tracking their telework."

Interior Department officials pushed back against assertions from Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., that it has been unable to produce "any meaningful data for tracking their telework." Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Interior officials defend department’s approach to telework

After Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., accused the Interior Department of “abusing” telework, department leaders revealed that more than half of their workforce works in person every day, and those who do telework have experienced increased productivity, retention and employee engagement.

Officials with the Interior Department on Thursday fended off attacks from House Republicans over the department’s deployment of telework for employees in non-public facing positions, touting both the high ratio of employees working every day in-person and the workplace flexibility’s benefits for mission support functions.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., a conservative firebrand and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, started the hearing by accusing the Interior Department of “abusing” its telework and remote work policies at the expense of Americans who rely on the department’s services.

“Despite the direction [from the Office of Management and Budget] to return to in-person work, DOI has only made minimal changes to its telework policy,” he said. “The reality remains that DOI allows telework-eligible employees to only report to the office twice every two weeks. DOI has been unable to produce any meaningful data for tracking their telework and remote work rates among employees, so it is unclear how much progress DOI has made toward returning to in-person work. Here we are in 2024, and DOI remains mired in irrelevant and ineffective COVID-19 era telework policies.”

But Mark Green, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for human capital and diversity and its chief human capital officer, said that in fact, the opposite is the case. Of the department’s 70,000 employees, more than half are in “customer-facing” roles that are not eligible to work remotely, and 65% of the department’s workforce works in person every day.

“55% of the workforce are customer-facing employees who provide core mission delivery functions on public lands, recreational areas, parks and wildlife refuges, and because of the work they do, they’re generally not eligible for regular telework,” he said. “A smaller portion performs mission support roles that are not public-facing and often are able to be performed in a telework or remote work posture . . . These employees are in occupations such as IT, HR, acquisition management, financial management and other similar support jobs, and they possess highly portable skills that are in high demand in both the public and private sectors.”

Green said that contrary to Gosar’s claims, the department has been hard at work examining how to implement OMB’s guidance encouraging more “meaningful in-person work.” Last September, managers and supervisors in the Washington, D.C., region to spend at least 50% of their working hours on-site, and that policy will extend to all non-bargaining unit employees in the region next month.

“Nationally, according to our latest payroll data, DOI’s workforce has been performing work in person for 65% of our work hours,” he said. “Based on our experience before, during and after the pandemic, we believe that the hybrid workforce model we’re operating in now is one that works for the department. In fact, for the department to remain competitive for the talent we will need in the future, especially in mission support occupations, we believe it’s essential that we continue to offer workplace flexibilities such as telework and remote work.”

Green said increased telework has corresponded to higher employee engagement scores, as measured by the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, as well as improved performance in success measures laid out in the department’s strategic plan.

Gosar pressed Green on what impact telework might be having at agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose customers live in predominantly rural areas with less access to high-speed internet. But Green stressed that many jobs within BIA likely aren’t eligible for telework due to the public-facing nature of the work.

“There’s always been challenges as far as where the Internet is available . . . but as a whole, even in BIA, they’re one of our bureaus with a higher percentage of in-person work than many of our other bureaus,” Green said. “They’re up in the 79-80% range [of employees working in-person] the last time I checked. So we haven’t seen telework as being a challenge related to that or the technology, because the vast majority of the work is still done in person.”