Shriver was appointed acting director of OPM earlier this month.

Shriver was appointed acting director of OPM earlier this month. Screengrab by GovExec/C-SPAN2

OPM’s new acting director defends federal telework, anti-Schedule F regulations

Rob Shriver defended the Biden administration’s workforce policies, citing new data suggesting fewer federal employees telework than their private sector counterparts.

New acting Office of Personnel Management Director Rob Shriver on Wednesday once again defended the Biden administration’s approach to telework and other federal workforce policies from Republicans who at times seemed uninterested in the very thing they have begged officials for over the past several years: new data.

At various hearings including OPM or Office of Management and Budget officials over the past year, House Republicans have derided executive branch leaders for “not knowing” how many federal employees are teleworking at any given time, and suggested that they would be willing to endorse the Biden administration’s telework and remote work policies, provided the government provide public data on its utilization and its impact on productivity.

“At the onset of the COVID pandemic, massive federal employee telework was a justifiable necessity, but that necessity ended a long time ago,” said House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman Jeff Comer, R-Ky., last month. “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.”

Although the road to more up-to-date and readily available data on the federal workforce’s usage of telework remains elusive—OPM is only just now implementing telework functionality to its Enterprise Human Resources Integration platform—a recent Congressional Budget Office report comparing the “total compensation” of federal workers with their private sector counterparts included a new nugget of information: comparing federal and private sector employees’ responses to the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, the watchdog agency found that by the end of 2022, 25% of private sector employees “typically” worked from home, compared to the 22% of federal employees.

This assertion seemed to baffle lawmakers.

“Did you say that federal employees got back to work quicker than in the private sector?” asked Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wisc.

“It’s not what I believe; it’s a CBO report and I’m happy to share it with you,” Shriver said. “And it’s important to note that 54% of federal workers don’t telework at all.”

“So you’re saying that two years after the end of COVID, a higher percentage of federal employees were working than non-federal employees?” Grothman said.

“You mean in the office?” Shriver asked.

“I mean total,” Grothman said. “[Let’s] say COVID ended on Dec. 31, 2022, who had a higher percentage of people at the worksite? And who had the higher percentage working, period?”

“So, federal employees were working during the pandemic,” Shriver said. “They were working on a maximum telework footing, except for the 50-plus percent that had to continue showing up in the workforce day in and day out. What I’m referencing is a recent CBO study that—”

“Well I don’t personally know anyone who wasn’t working in December 2022,” Grothman said. “I don’t know anyone like that.”

Rep. William Timmons, R-S.C., pressed Shriver on how the administration knows that telework is aiding its efforts to improve service delivery and productivity.

“What’s most concerning to me is that I have yet to see any data showing the benefits as telework,” he said. “Do you have any evidence that it is effective as in-person work?”

“That’s the key question, right? Are we making sure the work arrangements we have in place are driving us to successful mission delivery?” Shriver said. “I’m proud of OPM’s accomplishments with a workforce that does use telework, whether they be policy accomplishments or progress on our major operations. We’re not there yet, and we need partnership with Congress to get to where we need to be . . . but when I see inventories drop from 35,000 two years ago to 16,000 on retirement claims, the average processing time drop from 87 days to 61 days, and when wait time at our call center dropped by almost 50%, those are metrics that show we’re headed in the right direction.”

“[The] private sector has real-time metrics to assess work product, but you’re using outcomes as opposed to actual metrics," Timmons said. “You can’t track employees’ data to see what they’re accomplishing, or can you do that just like the private sector?”

“We do,” Shriver said. “It depends on the work, but as an example, those organizational metrics that I mentioned, they drive down into individual performance measures. So our legal administration specialists, they process the retirement claims that come in. They have performance standards that they are measured against on productivity, and their improved productivity leads to shorter processing times and a lower inventory backlog.”

“Are you reducing your costs for physical space since a substantial number of employees are teleworking?” Timmons asked.

“We have let go of some of our leased space across the country, though we have more work to do there to get to a new steady state,” Shriver said.

Shriver was repeatedly asked about OPM’s recent finalization of regulations aimed at hampering a future Republican administration from reviving Schedule F, a controversial policy that would have stripped tens of thousands of federal workers in “policy-related” positions of their civil service protections, making them effectively at-will employees. Shriver warned that if revived, it could cause a chilling effect among experts in government against providing unvarnished advice to political leaders, and would reduce the public’s trust in agencies.

“It is critical for the American people to have trust and confidence that the decisions and information and data presented is done so by experts in the field,” Shriver said. “Especially when you’re talking about the risk to life and property, it’s important that we make sure the American public understands the information they’re receiving comes from the experts.”

Republicans sought to highlight recent actions organized by some federal workers to protest American support for Israel amidst its bombing and invasion of Gaza as a reason to support Schedule F.

“They were holding their job, in a way, against this administration based on a political issue, and I think I would say it would be bad for any administration, Republican or Democrat, to find someone who thinks they’re hidden under a Hatch Act to provide this sort of political content,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas. “That is what the Hatch Act is there for. This was directly aimed at the policy of the United States that this administration is trying to support and is important for the country.”

The Hatch Act bars federal employees from engaging in certain election and campaign-related speech, typically involving candidates or political parties. It does not bar federal employees from voicing their opinions on political issues, and in fact specifically protects that type of speech.

“[Hatch Act cases] are fact-based determinations, and years and years of precedent determines how the Hatch Act is applied,” Shriver said.