Republicans, led by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., voiced their frustration at not receiving data regarding telework at federal agencies or its impact on productivity and service delivery in a timely manner.

Republicans, led by Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., voiced their frustration at not receiving data regarding telework at federal agencies or its impact on productivity and service delivery in a timely manner. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

OMB leader defends administration’s approach to telework

House Republicans continued to demand better data from the Biden administration regarding the prevalence and effectiveness of telework at federal agencies.

A top Office of Management and Budget official on Tuesday defended the Biden administration’s approach to telework from continued Republican scrutiny of the workplace flexibility.

Asked to explain the White House’s position on telework before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, OMB Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller said that the current expectation is that “office workers” at federal agencies should generally be asked to spend at least half of their working hours at traditional work sites. Some agencies, however, deviate from that standard based on mission needs.

“It’s important to put into context the fact that about half of federal workers have to be at a federal work site to perform their job responsibilities, [making them ineligible for telework],” Miller said. “[For] office workers, the place where there is consistency across agencies, we’ve been clear that our expectation is for agencies to be achieving at least 50% [in person work], while giving them flexibility for how best to deliver based on their diverse mission space. That’s consistent with where the private sector is, and we’ll continue to adjust as needed. We should be able to compete for talent, and we should be able to measure performance.”

But Republicans, led by Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., reiterated their frustration at not receiving data regarding telework at federal agencies or its impact on productivity and service delivery in a timely manner. In the recently enacted minibus spending packages keeping the government open through September, Congress included a provision requiring the White House provide a slew of new data on the workplace flexibility.

“At the onset of the COVID pandemic, massive federal employee telework was a justifiable necessity, but that necessity ended a long time ago,” Comer said. “Yet massive telework continues under the Biden administration, which is intent on making it a permanent fixture of federal work life. How do we know this is in the best interest of the public? The only data we’ve seen on that is a survey of federal employees themselves, and they think it’s working great.”

Miller said his office is working with federal agencies to collect the data required by Congress in its most recent spending agreement, but noted that, when including the around 50% of federal employees with no access to telework, 80% of the federal workforce is working in-person on any given day.

Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Texas, asked about a March report by the Architect of the Capitol inspector general that found that the agency had failed to update the locality pay for 20 employees who had signed remote work agreements, which necessitate allotting employees locality pay for where they live, rather than the office they report to, costing the agency around $120,000.

“The Architect of the Capitol’s inspector general found that 8% of telework-eligible employees were getting improper locality pay,” Cloud said. “Is this occurring? How many federal employees have had telework agreements revoked for misconduct, fraud or other improper behavior, or just for poor performance?”

Miller responded that each agency is responsible for upholding the telework agreements they make with each individual employee, but those may be subject to additional scrutiny. 

“My expectation is that agency leaders are holding them accountable to the agreements that they’ve signed," Miller said. "Similarly, if they’ve taken action where individuals are not in a consistent place with the locality they should be in, agencies need to fix that. But I’m not aware of this being a widespread issue . . . My expectation is also that we have, inside agencies, inspectors general looking into issues such as that.”

Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, asked how issues like improving diversity and improving recruitment and retention of young workers color the administration’s telework decisions.

“Opportunities like remote work or telework help increase diversity in the federal workforce for people who face all kinds of barriers, like access to transportation, taking care of an aging relative or having to pick up a child from school,” Brown said. “Living in a post-pandemic 21st century, we need to make the most of the incredible advantages that technology provides us all.”

Miller said the need to attract young, diverse populations to public service is why the White House has sought to mirror the private sector when developing its policies governing workplace flexibilities.

“We’re competing for talent,” he said. “We increasingly need a set of highly technical skills. That’s one area where we’re competing. Our workforce is older than the American workforce overall, which is why we’re particularly focused on increasing early career talent in the federal workforce—we’ve grown that by 13%, but we still have a long way to go . . . If we’re leaving some of the country on the bench and not giving them access [to federal jobs], we’re missing out on potential skills and expertise that could serve the American people in these roles.”