Federal Telework:

Additional Controls Could Strengthen Telework Program Compliance and Data Reporting

GAO-17-247: Published: Feb 17, 2017. Publicly Released: Mar 20, 2017.

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Contact:

Yvonne Jones
(202) 512-6806
jonesy@gao.gov

 

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How are federal agencies managing their 400,000+ teleworkers?

The 4 agencies we reviewed (Ed, GSA, Labor & SEC) generally met the reporting requirements in the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. However we found some barriers to telework program success:

Training timing: Managers may make telework decisions before training.

Documentation: Agencies may not review telework agreements annually or document renewals.

Managerial resistance: Some supervisors discourage telework despite agency participation goals.

Separately, we also found OPM and some agencies had quality problems with their telework data, which we made recommendations to address.

Total Telework Hours at Four Agencies per Pay Period, for Pay Periods Ending October 3, 2015-June 11, 2016

Total telework hours at four agencies for pay periods ending October 3, 2015 through June 11, 2016.

Note: An earlier version of this summary featured an alternative figure.

Total telework hours at four agencies for pay periods ending October 3, 2015 through June 11, 2016.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Yvonne Jones
(202) 512-6806
jonesy@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The telework policies at four selected case study agencies GAO reviewed met select requirements of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 (the act) for telework eligibility and agreements. These agencies followed similar processes for approving telework agreements. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance recommends managers complete telework training prior to approving telework agreements, but three of the four agencies did not have a mechanism to help ensure managers have completed this training before approving employee telework agreements. Because managers in these agencies may not have completed the training before entering into agreements, they may not be familiar with telework policies. Further, three of the four agencies did not require a periodic documented review of telework agreements. By not requiring regular review of telework agreements, these agencies cannot be assured that the agreements reflect and support their current business needs. Consistent with the act, all four agencies described efforts to encourage telework participation and provide for the technology to enable it. However, GAO's focus groups with teleworkers provided some examples of how supervisors may discourage telework participation and reported that some level of managerial resistance to telework remains. Managerial resistance to telework can undermine reviewed agencies' ability to meet telework participation goals. In its leadership role for telework matters, OPM can assist agencies with tools to assess and resolve these types of concerns.

Consistent with the act, all four case study agencies have controls to help ensure that telework does not diminish employee and organizational performance. These four agencies' policies followed the act's requirement that teleworkers be treated the same as nonteleworkers for the purposes of work requirements, performance appraisals, and other managerial decisions. Agency officials and focus groups reported that telework status did not impact performance expectations. Focus groups with supervisors described numerous strategies and resources they use to supervise and stay connected with teleworking employees.

The four agencies used varied methods to collect and report telework data to be included in OPM's annual telework reports, but all cited challenges to ensuring that employee-reported telework data were accurate because employees may not know or follow policies for recording telework. While three of these agencies use electronic systems to track telework agreements, the Department of Labor (Labor) uses a manual system which limits its ability to access accurate, real-time telework agreement data that management uses to assess compliance and for resource allocation decisions. Further, GAO found that the Department of Education (Education) had not been reporting telework eligibility data compliant with the act. OPM also faced challenges in reporting accurate agency telework data and GAO identified errors in OPM's annual reports to Congress. For example, OPM's report cited Education's fiscal year 2016 telework participation goal as 5 percent, reflecting Education's goal for increasing its participation rate, instead of its overall participation goal of 90 percent. OPM may be missing opportunities to improve its data because it does not always follow up with agencies on significant data differences or outliers. The errors and invalid data in OPM's annual reports to Congress reduce the usefulness of these reports.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 required agencies to develop telework policies and OPM to provide guidance and report on telework use, among other things. GAO was asked to review agency telework programs.

This report examines (1) how selected agencies comply with the act's requirements, (2) the internal controls affecting federal supervisors' ability to hold teleworkers accountable for achieving results, and (3) the challenges selected agencies and OPM face in collecting and reporting telework data. GAO selected four case study agencies for review—Education, General Services Administration, Labor, and Securities and Exchange Commission—based on agency size and telework participation rates. GAO reviewed OPM guidance and reports, and policies and data at case study agencies. GAO also interviewed OPM and case study agency officials and held focus groups with case study agency supervisors and teleworkers.

What GAO Recommends

GAO makes recommendations to each of the case study agencies, including ensuring supervisors complete telework training in a timely manner and improving telework data. GAO also recommends that OPM develop tools to help agencies assess telework barriers, and to improve telework data reported to Congress. Three agencies agreed with the recommendations. One did not comment. OPM disagreed with GAO's recommendations citing limited resources to expend on efforts not specifically required under the act. GAO maintains that OPM should implement these actions as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Yvonne Jones at (202) 512-6806 or jonesy@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter dated May 18, 2017, a Department of Education official stated that the department concurs with the recommendation and have taken steps to implement it. The letter stated Education is implementing tighter controls such that, no later than September 30, 2017, Education will fully verify that supervisors have completed telework training prior to entering into telework agreements with their employees and that completion of this training is documented. When we confirm that Education has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To support the consistent application of agency telework policy throughout the agency, the Secretaries of the Departments of Education and Labor and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should implement controls to verify that supervisors have completed telework training prior to entering into telework agreements with their employees and that completion of this training is documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter to GAO dated May 26, 2017, the Department of Labor stated that the department currently offers interactive manager/supervisor telework training to all supervisors, the completion of which is documented in the managers and supervisors training records. However, officials said this training is strongly encouraged but not required. In response to the recommendation, the Department of Labor will look at expanding its telework policy to make completion of this interactive training course mandatory for all managers and supervisors, and to implement actions to support any revised policy by September 30, 2018. When we confirm that Labor has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To support the consistent application of agency telework policy throughout the agency, the Secretaries of the Departments of Education and Labor and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should implement controls to verify that supervisors have completed telework training prior to entering into telework agreements with their employees and that completion of this training is documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter dated May 19, 2017, the Chairman of the SEC stated that SEC agrees with the recommendation. The letter states that previously, SEC required all supervisors to complete telework training within 90 days of hire or promotion to a supervisory position. However, in March 2017, SEC reduced the timeframe and now requires new supervisors to complete telework training within two weeks. The SEC will continue to document completion of this training in its electronic system. When we confirm that SEC has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To support the consistent application of agency telework policy throughout the agency, the Secretaries of the Departments of Education and Labor and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should implement controls to verify that supervisors have completed telework training prior to entering into telework agreements with their employees and that completion of this training is documented.

    Agency Affected: United States Securities and Exchange Commission

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter to GAO dated May 26, 2017, the Department of Labor stated that the current policy requires supervisors to conduct an annual review of telework agreements to ensure the arrangement is current and the needs of the agency are being met. The Department of Labor will look t expanding this requirement to include a process for documenting annual review, and implement actions to support any revised policy by September 30, 2018. When we confirm that Labor has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that telework agreements accurately reflect telework participation, and to further ensure the accuracy of telework data reported internally and externally, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should require documentation of regular or periodic reviews of all telework agreements in agency telework policies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter dated May 16, 2017, GSA's acting administrator stated that GSA will continue to recommend in its annual performance management communications to supervisors that telework agreements be reviewed annually. GSA will also update the telework policy to require the annual review of telework agreements, and will provide quarterly reports to agency organizations identifying employees who have not completed mandatory telework training or who do not have an approved telework agreement in place. When we confirm that GSA has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that telework agreements accurately reflect telework participation, and to further ensure the accuracy of telework data reported internally and externally, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should require documentation of regular or periodic reviews of all telework agreements in agency telework policies.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter dated May 19, 2017, the Chairman of the SEC stated that SEC agrees with the recommendation and that SEC is upgrading its telework program system to require annual review and recertification of all telework agreements. SEC expects this change to be completed in 2017. When we confirm that SEC has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that telework agreements accurately reflect telework participation, and to further ensure the accuracy of telework data reported internally and externally, the Secretary of the Department of Labor, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, and the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission should require documentation of regular or periodic reviews of all telework agreements in agency telework policies.

    Agency Affected: United States Securities and Exchange Commission

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter to GAO dated May 26, 2017, the Department of Labor stated that it will benchmark best practices used by other Federal agencies to explore options for utilizing its existing telework agreement tracking system to facilitate more timely access to telework agreement data, and implement actions to support new practices by September 30, 2018. When we confirm that Labor has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To improve the accuracy of telework data transmitted to OPM, the Secretary of the Department of Labor should direct the Chief Human Capital Officer to work with the Telework Managing Officer to develop and implement a plan to modernize Labor's telework agreement tracking system to enable more timely access to accurate telework data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter dated May 18, 2017, a Department of Education official stated that the department concurs with the recommendation and notes that the Telework Managing Officer has already taken the necessary steps to regularly updated employees' eligibility status for reporting purposes under the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. The letter further states that the Department reported these updated numbers in the fiscal year 2017 Telework Data Call. When we confirm that Education has completed these actions, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the employee eligibility data transmitted to OPM comport with what OPM is required to report under the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 and accurately reflect the current number of employees eligible to telework, the Secretary of the Department of Education should direct the Telework Managing Officer to take the steps necessary to regularly update employees' eligibility status.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter dated May 16, 2017, OPM's acting director stated that OPM does not concur with the recommendation. OPM agrees with GAO's assessment of the value of tools for assessing and analyzing telework barriers and agrees that such tools may help agencies increase telework participation rates, but OPM states the tools contemplated in this recommendation are not relevant to addressing the internal control issues examined within the scope of GAO's review. Further, the letter states that OPM has already fulfilled the legal responsibilities identified in the Telework Enhancement Act as applicable to OPM by providing agencies with training, policy guidance, and tools for goal-setting, qualitative and quantitative measurement, program evaluation, and action planning. OPM officials also state there are limited resources available for OPM to expand upon the materials they already provide to agencies, especially since no such requirement is imposed by the Telework Enhancement Act. We will continue to monitor OPM's actions, if any, related to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To provide additional guidance to agencies and encourage the elimination of barriers to increased telework opportunities consistent with the act, and to ensure the accuracy of telework information OPM annually reports to Congress, the Director of OPM should develop tools to help agencies assess and analyze persistent barriers to telework, including managerial resistance, such as a survey or other feedback mechanism.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: In a letter dated May 16, 2017, the acting director stated that OPM did not agree with the recommendation. While OPM recognizes the importance of data accuracy to effectively evaluate federal telework programs, OPM does not agree that the Telework Enhancement Act imposes any obligation on OPM to allocate significant resources necessary to validate telework data collected from agencies or that a year-over-year comparison of survey data is needed or advantageous to ensuring a reasonable and rigorous data analysis. We agree that OPM should not independently validate agency data, but OPM should take the steps necessary to identify and explain data outliers and limitations. Because OPM is the agency responsible for reporting telework data, OPM should ensure its annual reports to Congress include a clear discussion of data reliability limitations. Following up on data outliers and large year-to-year changes can help OPM identify data errors that could be corrected by agencies and provide OPM with the opportunity to discuss data limitations with agencies. Including such information clearly in the annual telework reports to Congress can make them more useful to Congress and to others. If we confirm that OPM takes actions in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To provide additional guidance to agencies and encourage the elimination of barriers to increased telework opportunities consistent with the act, and to ensure the accuracy of telework information OPM annually reports to Congress, the Director of OPM should strengthen controls for reviewing, validating, and reporting telework data in annual Status of Telework in the Federal Government reports. Specifically, OPM should follow up with agency officials on data outliers, including significant changes in year-to-year data.

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

 

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