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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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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 1, 2018. the Department of Education updated its Telework Program policy to require that supervisors complete annual supervisors telework training before entering into telework agreements with employees. When supervisors approve telework agreements, the Department of Education's Telework Coordinator verifies that the supervisor has taken the training by reviewing the monthly telework training completion roster prior to finalizing telework agreements. If a supervisor has not taken the required training, the telework agreement is returned to the supervisor along with a request for them to complete the training and submit a copy of the training completion certificate.

    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 manager and supervisor training records. However, officials said this training was strongly encouraged but not required. In fiscal year 2019, telework training was added as a mandatory course for all managers and supervisors, the completion of which is documented in manager and supervisor training records and reported to departmental leadership. However, the Department of Labor has not yet provided documentation that such training is required to be completed before entering into telework agreements with employees. We will continue to follow up with the Department of Labor on this and will provide an update when available.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2017, SEC changed its requirement for telework training to require employees and managers to complete telework training within two weeks of hire or movement into a supervisory role. Completion of this training is documented in SEC's Learning Management System, and SEC management can generate reports to identify and follow up with individuals who have not met their training requirement. Further, the collective bargaining agreement SEC entered into with the employee union requires supervisors to complete telework training prior to having employees telework.

    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. As of October 2019, Labor is revising its telework processes to include a defined procedure for managers/supervisors to document and report the annual reviews. It is projected this new procedure will be implemented in FY 2020. When we confirm that Labor has fully 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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On June 29, 2018, GSA updated its Workforce Mobility and Telework Policy to include a requirement for an annual review and recertification of telework agreements. The policy states that telework agreements must reflect a current agreement between the employee and his or her supervisor. It also states that annual telework agreements must be submitted and approved in the GSA-approved telework agreement system in alignment with performance appraisal completion. The policy also encourages supervisors to review telework participation and frequency at mid-year performance reviews. Having these periodic and documented reviews will help ensure GSA has updated and accurate telework data.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Between October, 2017 and April 2019, SEC developed, tested, and implemented a change to its telework agreement system that automatically notifies employees to review and recertify their telework agreement annually. The telework agreement system documents these annual updates.

    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. As of October 2019, Labor is developing a telework tracking application to improve access to telework data and the quality of telework data reported by its agencies. It is projected this tracking application will be launched as part of a broader internal web-based collaborative platform in FY 2020. When we confirm that Labor has fully 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: Closed - Implemented

    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 update 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. We reviewed the fiscal year 2016, 2017, and 2018 telework participation and eligibility data the Department sent to OPM for the annual telework data calls and confirmed that these data are being updated regularly and the Department of Education is no longer reporting static data.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2017, OPM administered the first Governmentwide Federal Work-Life Survey. This survey included questions about a number of work-life programs, including telework, to help identify common barriers to participation in telework, including managerial resistance. Specifically, the survey discussed supervisory perceptions of employees' reported telework participation outcomes, supervisors' confidence to effectively manage telework performance, and key drivers for telework approvals and denials. The governmentwide results of this survey were made available on OPM's web site. Further, according to OPM officials, each Chief Human Capital Officer Council represented agency received an individual report, and those that had components with a population over 5,000 employees received a report for each of those components, for a total of 101 individual reports. OPM also developed and distributed a video tutorial for agencies to use to help them analyze their results.

    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. As of January 2020, OPM has not taken action on this recommendation. If we confirm that OPM does take action 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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