Earlier this month, the Federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released its first comprehensive report to Congress on telework following the enactment of the new Federal telework law at the end of 2010. I have spent the last two weeks talking to reporters about what it means. While they have written some very good stories, the most important thing in the report may not be getting the play it deserves; that is a plea to understand that this is just the first attempt to make this all work. I’ll talk about some of the findings and what I think they mean (in case you haven’t had time to read the full report). But first, I want to talk about this idea of maturity of the effort.
When I was a kid, there was a show called Schoolhouse Rock (yes, I am that old). I guess I was a wonk from an early age because my favorite episode was the one on how laws are made called, “I’m Just a Bill.” It explains to kids (and more adults than you would probably believe) the legislative process. Between that episode, a degree in political science, a father who was a political writer, a mother who worked on Capitol Hill, and living 11 blocks from the Capitol, I thought I had a pretty good handle on how the government works. Fast forward 30 some odd years and I learned I had been wrong all along. Bill, the talking bill from Schoolhouse Rock, told me in song (as well as untold teachers and professors in much less interesting ways) that once Congress passes the bill and the President signs it, it is now a law. What they didn’t tell me is that that is just the beginning of the story, not the end.
I won’t spend my space or your time lecturing on bureaucratic processes, but let it suffice to say that what happens after the law is enacted is as complicated and confusing as the process to make it a law. The message that does not seem to be getting out about the new OPM telework report is that the report is just an initial baseline of where we are (or were in September 2011). There is a great section in the report on lessons learned. The key lesson I took from the report is that this is just the beginning of a new way of managing our workforce and it will take time to make everything work. It’s like going to the gym: thinking and talking about it doesn’t get you into better shape and once you go, it’s just the beginning of the process. Remember, it’s okay to make mistakes, just recognize them early and learn from them. This is the most important thing government can do to improve and we can all do in our own lives.
As for the actual data OPM found, I see three important trends. First is that telework has become a strategic tool not only for business continuity/resilience and efficient operations, but key to recruitment and retention of top talent. This is very important as salaries for Feds are frozen and everyone seems to want to throw pies at Federal workers. When the economy turns around (be patient, it’s cyclical), all those Feds who can retire really will and we will need to find good people to replace them.
Second is the continued issue of management resistance. We have talked about it in the past and it’s clearly not gone away. My feeling is that we need better training for managers on how to manage by objective and results, not attendance and output. The data show that most agencies are using the online training on OPM’s website for both managers and employees. While this training is very focused on the rules and procedures, I think it is more important for training to be focused on management theory and practice.
The third trend is related to equipment for teleworkers –who provides it and who pays. One quarter of the hardware is provided by the agency, one quarter by employee, one quarter shared, and one quarter “other” (no idea what that means). However, nearly all of the teleworkers are paying for all or most of their broadband access costs. For the majority of teleworkers, this is leverage of an investment they have already made (broadband data access), so little or no cost to the government makes sense here. What we really need is a better understanding of the drivers, such as, do the agencies that are paying all require the employees to use government equipment?
Overall, the data show great progress and some lagging issues. Good data allows us to address the problems, not just talk about it as a concept, so OPM’s efforts to drive consistency in the data are important. And finally, please remember that telework is not a silver bullet. It won’t cure cancer or make your hair grow back (darn!). It’s a management tool, pure and simple and we need to treat it as such and stop trying to vilify or lionize it.
A great way to learn more about the telework progress agencies are making is to attend the Telework Exchange Fall Town Hall Meeting. OPM, along with more than 20 other government representatives, will serve as speakers at the event to share how agencies are moving forward with telework/mobility initiatives.
I look forward to your thoughts and comments. You can write them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.