`Telework' concept falls short of goals

FEDERAL WORKERS

September 30, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS

This week, President Bush urged all of us - especially federal workers - to conserve. Turn off the computers, air-conditioning and lights at night, he said. Use mass transit, carpool or work closer to home.

But many federal workers didn't hear a call to action. Rather, they heard irony.

Despite years of efforts to encourage federal employees to work from home or suburban offices, to save fuel and help keep government running during disasters, more than half of managers disfavor so-called "telework" initiatives, according to a private-sector survey of almost 300 federal workers published this year.

Recent reports from the Office of Personnel Management have shown progress, with 6 percent of the work force telecommuting and 43 percent eligible to do so. But those figures fall far short of goals.

In some agencies, the foot-dragging became so severe that Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, won approval for legislation this year that withheld $5 million in funding from five agencies until auditors confirmed improvements this month. He plans to take the same carrot-and-stick approach next year.

The language in the bill isn't specific, allowing each agency to set its own limits on who qualifies for the program and setting no criteria on how often those workers could use the privilege.

According to the National Treasury Employees Union, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a division of the Department of Justice, has argued that making 4 percent of its work force eligible for the program on a regular basis would be enough to avoid a penalty.

The matter is before a seven-person board responsible for ruling on labor-management disputes.

Although the report from the Government Accountability Office this month found that the five agencies - the Justice, Commerce and State departments, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Small Business Administration - accurately reported their efforts, it also noted the absence of crucial data and varying standards.

None of the five agencies could report the actual number of employees who work from home or suburban offices or the frequency with which they do so because the agencies don't track it.

The Justice Department used a survey of supervisors to report its figures, and the four other agencies based their numbers on signed telework agreements. Two agencies extended the opportunity to everyone, while the others barred workers handling classified documents from the program.

In a letter to agencies, Wolf wrote that he remained concerned that agencies weren't "fully embracing" the concept and that he expected improvements in their quarterly reports.

The GAO report can be found at gao.gov. Click on "Reports and Testimony."

Inspectors general

Allegations of cronyism inside the Bush administration have grabbed public attention since media reports surfaced about former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown's expertise in Arabian horses.

But probably more alarming for federal workers, most of whom could name at least one appointee with a lackluster resume before Hurricane Katrina, is a January report cited in Time magazine noting concerns about cronies being appointed to watch other cronies.

Inspectors general root out waste, fraud and abuse in the executive branch. Their reports also serve as the basis for, or at least support, much of the investigative reporting out of Washington.

Of the 11 inspectors general President Bush had appointed as of January, seven had Republican political experience, such as working at the White House or on congressional staff, and two had auditing experience. The percentages were almost reversed under President Bill Clinton. Of his 32 inspectors, 21 had audit experience and seven had Democratic political experience.

The findings were the subject of a 25-page report from Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and the ranking minority member of the House Government Reform Committee.

The report also looked at how many of these inspectors donated to federal political candidates before getting their jobs. Eight of Clinton's 32 did, compared with six of Bush's 11.

The report is available at democrats.reform.house.gov (type "inspectors" into the search engine) and lists a summary of each appointee's resume.

Federal Workers welcomes comments and ideas. The writer can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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