Pandemic plans give teleworking key role

Agencies at last may take teleworking seriously, as the administration has made it a critical piece of its strategy to keep the government operating in the face of a pandemic.

Few agencies have prepared to use telework effectively during an emergency, said comptroller general David Walker.

Teleworking would be particularly helpful in ensuring that agencies continue their essential services during a pandemic, Walker told the House Government Reform Committee yesterday. The effects of a pandemic, such as avian flu, could send absentee rates as high as 40 percent and last for weeks or months, during which federal employees may be ill, caring for ill family members or distancing themselves out of fear of infection.

Hurricane Katrina last year demonstrated that teleworking is a critical alternative for federal workers, he said.

The Government Accountability Office found in its most recent survey, which ended in February, that more agencies than previously have developed plans for essential staff to telework during an emergency. Few, however, have documented details of their preparations for employees to continue to operate at remote locations during an emergency, Walker said in comments about a GAO report.

About half of the 23 agencies include teleworking in their continuity of operations plans, but only three agencies documented plans to use teleworking effectively. Additionally, although nine agencies indicated that essential personnel would telework during an emergency, just one had notified staff that they were expected to telework during such an event.

In the administration's National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza announced last week, the federal government chiefly has a supportive role in dealing with a bird flu pandemic, such as funding antiviral medicines and vaccines, developing public health surveillance systems and setting policies to keep the federal government operating through teleworking. State and local agencies would shoulder most of the emergency preparedness and response.

The Office of Personnel Management, in coordination with the Homeland Security Department, will revise existing telework guidance for agencies in three months as the national strategy specified, said OPM director Linda Springer. Each agency is supposed to include telework in its continuity of operations preparations.

'But the statute now does not give OPM authority to tell agencies what they must do,' Springer told the House Government Reform Committee.

'Would you like that authority?' asked House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.)

'Someone needs to have that authority,' Springer said.

OPM teleworking guidance will describe relevant leave and work scheduling policies for federal employees, best practices, sufficient communications and technology capacity to handle a larger number of employees working remotely than usual.

OPM will test its own policies in a governmentwide COOP exercise next month, Springer said.

Before the Forward Challenge 06 biennial exercise in June, the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs to develop a methodology to assess agencies' compliance with Federal Preparedness Circular 65 COOP plans, GAO recommended in its report.

'Without such a methodology, the agency will have limited assurance that agencies have taken the necessary steps to prepare for an emergency,' said Linda Koontz, director of GAO information management issues, in the report.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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