Agencies make telework gains; barriers remain

Agencies have offered about 68.5 percent of all eligible workers the opportunity to telecommute, well above the 50 percent goal set for this year by Congress, OPM director Kay Coles James says.

Henrik G. DeGyor

The Office of Personnel Management is working with the CIO Council to sketch out a plan to make it easier for federal employees to telework.

Bonnie Storm, director of OPM's Office of Work Life Programs, said her agency requested a meeting with the CIOs to discuss how to make sure employees have the necessary technology to secure data when telecommuting.

'There are things that CIOs can do to make telecommuting easier, such as refreshing desktops with laptops,' Storm said. 'We also know connectivity is a problem, and OPM and the General Services Administration are working on that. CIOs need to be a part of that solution.'

Storm's appeal to the CIO Council came after OPM's recent telework report, which it submitted to Congress in late January, found the biggest agency barriers to telecommuting were the limitations of technology and concerns over data security. Previously, the main barriers had been managerial resistance and funding shortfalls.

The Transportation Department appropriations bill of 2000 required OPM to evaluate agencies' progress toward offering, by 2004, telework options to all employees whose jobs fit the criteria.

OPM surveyed 77 agencies' telework initiatives and found significant progress overall. Agencies have offered about 68.5 percent of all eligible workers the opportunity to telecommute, which is above the congressionally mandated 50 percent goal set for this year, OPM director Kay Coles James said in a statement released with the report.

The report said 90,010 employees, or about 5 percent of all feds, telework, up from 74,487 in 2001. The 21 percent increase can be attributed to more agencies establishing telecommuting policies, the report concluded. Last year, 63 agencies created strategies, up from five in 2001.

Gaining momentum

'We have done a lot to drive the telework agenda forward,' Storm said. 'We've visited agencies, talked about telework policy and asked how we can help them develop their policies.'

Storm also credits congressional and executive branch interest in telecommuting as another reason for agency improvement.

The OPM survey also found employees at levels from GS-12 to GS-15 were the most common teleworkers. Tim Kane, president of the International Telework Association and Council, said the results did not surprise him, especially the change in the barriers.

'In this heightened level of sensitivity we are facing, especially with data security, I'm sure everyone is relooking at possible vulnerabilities, and the technology behind teleworking is one the things people are looking at,' Kane said. 'Also the federal government, in many instances, is not giving employees equipment to telework. Therefore, the home environment may be less secure.'

Telecommuting technology, such as virtual private networks, has proven to be secure, he said. Kane, who also is the president of Kinetic Workplace Inc. of Pittsburgh, a telework consulting company, added that with the enhancement of VPN technology and wider availability of broadband connections, security slowly is becoming less of an issue.

The FBI, though, does not believe technology is secure enough to let more of its employees telecommute. An FBI telework official, who asked not to be named, said because of the sensitive and confidential nature of their work, documents cannot be removed from many offices, and access to the bureau's secure systems cannot be allowed to home computers.

'There are no secure telephone lines to individual homes or even telework centers that will connect to the FBI's mainframe computers,' the official said.

The FBI is not alone in its concerns about data security. The Energy and State departments face similar challenges.

Such concerns are part of the reason the Justice Department and State are at the bottom of the list of agencies with a percentage of employees teleworking. The report said Justice and State have telework rates of 1.2 percent and 1.4 percent, respectively, of all eligible employees.

Energy has a much higher percentage, with 8 percent of all workers telecommuting at least part
of the week.

Storm said these agencies may take longer to make telework a reality. She said OPM would follow up with agency progress over the next year.

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