Who's teleworking? Government doesn't really know.

In 2010, the Office of Personnel Management set an aggressive goal of increasing the level of telework among federal employees by 50 percent, but officials don’t know how well they’re doing with it because of shortcomings in the way data about telework is collected, according to a recent report.

OPM plans to test an automated system to gather telework data from agencies this year to get more complete and consistent data, rather than relying on agency estimates as in the past. But these changes also will make it difficult to compare the data with that from previous years, as required by the Telework Enhancement Act, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“OPM officials have noted that this could limit OPM’s ability to report agency progress in its first report to Congress,” GAO said in its report.


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It likely will be several years before there can be meaningful measurements of progress in moving federal workers out of the office.

Government policy has long supported the idea of telework, and anecdotal reports have identified greater job satisfaction, improved efficiency and reduced costs as benefits of working remotely, along with the environmental benefits from reduced commuting. But policies at each agency have varied, and worker participation has been spotty.

According to the 2011 OPM report on the status of federal telework, 5.72 percent of employees teleworked in 2009, about two-thirds of them regularly, defined as from one to three days a week. But 22 percent reported teleworking “to some extent.”

The Telework Enhancement Act in 2010 required agencies to identify employees eligible to work at least some of the time outside the traditional office and to establish formal programs to encourage telework. OPM is to report annually to Congress on participation, which requires a comprehensive program to gather data.

OPM has been gathering telework information for Congress annually since 2002. But its reports have been based on agency estimates of participation rather than rigorous data.

“OPM cautions that existing measures of telework participation are a barrier to measuring any increase in telework, as the measures vary widely in validity and reliability and limit the capability of any federal body to track the actual level and frequency of telework participation,” the GAO report states.

In response to the Telework Enhancement Act, OPM made changes in data collection for the report on 2011 participation, which is due to Congress in June. The agency standardized definitions, clarified survey questions, and gathered new information. But the transition was complicated by inadequate training, and results in the initial report will not be comparable with earlier ones.

“OPM officials anticipate that telework data will be more reliable next year because of the expected governmentwide implementation of automated data collection based on time and attendance records,” GAO said. “Data collected through automated systems eliminates the need to track telework data by counting telework agreements or relying on estimates.”

OPM will begin piloting automated data collection from agency human resources systems a common coding system this year, with full automation expected in 2013.

“Different agencies have varying abilities to implement this new type of data collection and reporting mechanism, and considering different levels of comfort with new systems, it will take time to adjust to this method,” GAO said.

The 2011 telework report cannot be used as a baseline for measuring future progress under the Telework Act because of the differences in data being collected going forward. Although improvements are expected in the consistency of future reports, OPM said it does not control the quality of the information.

“The measurement of telework participation currently occurs at the level of the individual agency,” Angela Bailey, OPM’s associate director of employee service, said in response to the GAO report. “Few work/life agency staffs are adequately trained in evaluation methodology or data collection. As a consequence, inadequate methods for data collection prevail within agencies and many, as GAO noted, do not adequately capture telework behavior.”

But automating collection could help improve quality, she said. “The automated system will provide data appropriate to more sophisticated analyses, including examination of trends to the extent appropriate and, more importantly, provide OPM with the data necessary to assess important outcomes with telework.”

 

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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