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The virtues of remote government

Obama signs US government Telework Enhancement Act

Government sector teleworking has in principle taken a big step forward in the United States, with the passing into law of the Telework Enhancement Act.

When President Obama signed the Act, he placed on all Federal Government Agencies a requirement to:

  • establish telework policies
  • decide the eligibility of all employees in agencies to telework
  • notify all employees of their eligibility
  • set up interactive telework training programmes
  • appoint a senior official to be a Telework Managing Officer
  • set annual targets for increasing the uptake of telework
  • report on telework progress, in terms of
    • numbers of people who telework and how frequently
    • measured impacts on: emergency readiness, energy use, recruitment and retention, performance, productivity, and employee attitudes.

In addition, the Act also:

  • sets out some generic criteria for deciding eligibility, both in terms of type of work and performance issues
  • states the necessity for having written agreements about the specific work arrangements
  • specifies equal treatment for teleworkers and non-teleworkers in terms of appraisals, training, rewards, retention, work requirements and handling by managers
  • requires the Office of Personnel Management to provide policy and guidance in the areas of pay, leave, recruitment, performance management, official workplaces and accommodations for employees with disabilities
  • requires the General Services Administration to issue policy and guidance on telework in relation to telework centres, travel reduction, technology and dependent care.
  • requires other agencies to develop policies and procedures for information security for teleworking and for business continuity.

A clear message from the top

From an outside perspective, it is curious that work organisation in government needs a change in law to make it happen.  However, it has the great advantage of making a clear statement that 'This Is What Is Going To Happen'. It is fully authorised from the very top, and no one can pretend to be in ignorance of the policy direction. 

All agencies have 120 days to comply with the requirements, so there is a message that heel-dragging is out.  And the requirement to set targets and clear metrics is a clear sign of intent.  Few change programmes succeed without top level endorsement.

And what are the benefits?

The Act provides a structured and well thought-out framework for pushing telework forward.  And the reporting framework shows that there are some clear ideas of the benefits it is hoped to achieve. 

A key driver, though not so explicit in the Act itself, is to shrink the size and costs of government real estate.  This was brought up by members supporting the progress of the bill.  The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that implementing telework will cost $30 million over five years, but it will save many times this amount over the longer term.  In fact it has been estimated that in the recent snow storms teleworking is saving $30 million per day in productivity that is not being lost.

Supporters of the bill pointed to private sector organisations that have saved large amounts of money from telework, such as IBM who report saving $56 million annually from telework.

However, Republican critics of the Act note that the final version of the Bill that was passed lost the requirement for agencies to demonstrate that their programmes do actually save money.

The government does expect to reap benefits in terms of business continuity, improved productivity and performance, reduced energy use, improved retention and reduced travel.  How much will depend on the level of uptake, and we can expect in the future detailed annual calculations of the impacts.

Will it work?

There have been pushes for teleworking in the US government before, but official reports and individual complaints have shown both a lack of uptake and in some cases management obstruction.  This time, though it looks like there should be a stronger institutional effort.

However, implementing change in any large organisation can be a slow process, not least in government. Some critics have pointed out that the measures risk increasing bureaucracy through the specified reporting and accountability processes.

As with all such measures, it depends how they do it.  The change has to be genuine, and probably the biggest challenge will be overcoming the traditional culture of government and traditional mindsets, habits and assumptions about where, when and how work should be done.

Despite the good intentions, there are grounds for concern about the approach specified in the Act.

Firstly, while saying that all employees in principle could be eligible, the exceptions and a lack of clarity about who decides could leave the decision in the hands of line managers who just want to stick to the old ways. 

Exceptions to teleworking are people whose official duties require them on a daily basis to handle classified materials directly, or who undertake on-site activity that cannot be handled remotely or at an alternative work site.  While this is intended to apply to specific roles, e.g. forest rangers, teachers, spies, potential Wikileakers, etc, these could be easily interpreted to cover a wider range of roles.  And effective planning for remote work involves also looking at how tasks can be unpacked and repackaged in different bundles in order to cut down on unnecessary travel and office space.

Secondly, there is no clear approach to workspace apparent.  We all know that governments need to make huge savings and property is part of that.  And telework will have significant spatial impacts.  So what do you do hack at the office?  The office needs to be transformed into flexible work environments that are built for collaboration and the kinds of specialist work that require an office location - not ranks of desks and acres of storage.

Thirdly, the approach to performance implies that the office is still the normal and default place to work.  So telework is still presented as a kind of revocable privilege, rather than a natural place to work. 

In relation to performance and discipline, it is specified teleworkers should not be people who are known to have downloaded pornography, including child pornography, onto government computers.  This shows certain prejudices and assumptions about what teleworkers might do in the Internet Age. 

It seems bizarre and a little out of touch to specify certain kinds of unacceptable or illegal activity and not others.  I guess a track record of gambling and money laundering, or exchanging fraternal greetings on jihadist websites and signing up for bomb-making webinars is within the rules.

There are two points here. One is that you don't want timewasters and criminals working for you at all, in the office or beyond it.  The second is the assumption that performance issues necessarily have to be brought into line of sight in order to be remedied.  And the embedded assumption here is that the manager will always be in the office to do the supervision.

Fourthly, teleworking or remote working is only one aspect of flexible working.  The Act does not seemed to be joined up in any strategic way to separate initiatives on work-life balance that incorporate other flexible working options (Read more).  These too have an impact on all the proposed metrics, and need to be incorporated into a unified strategy for working smarter.

Where's the strategy?

But probably the biggest weakness is, as the critics have pointed out, the lack of a requirement for achieving savings and for financial reporting - for creating a business case for change and having the means to both deliver it and to evaluate whether you have succeeded in saving money.  There are clearly some crucial missing ingredients here.

At the end of the day there is a structure, and there are some proposed generic benefits.  But there is no clear vision about the future shape of government working practices, and no actual strategy as yet to deliver quantified benefits within a defined timescale.

So at the moment, it's a case of:  'Allow telework, and some good things will happen.  Monitor the results, and hopefully more good things will happen'.  For the Act to work, this now needs to turn into a series of robust programmes for driving through change.

December 2010


Time for a T.E.A. party?

Telework Enhancement Act, that is.  Here at Flexibility.co.uk we of course welcome the US government initiative to promote and extend teleworking for federal employees.

There's much that other governments could learn from this about how to develop an overarching approach to remote working.

In this article Andy Lake analyses the legislation and whether it will transform the way government works in America.

In the end, it looks like there's the making of a coherent framework, but no real strategy as yet to deliver the benefits or change the culture of the government workplace.







America's top teleworker working from home





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