Federal Telework Initiative Not Quite There Yet

The notion that the U.S. government workforce is a huge, deskbound bureaucracy is the typical stereotype, but that vision is only part true. The federal workforce is huge, and it may be well be bureaucratic — but federal workers are not always deskbound.

Many federal jobs require mobility. Agricultural and industrial inspectors, Border Patrol agents, tax and financial examiners come to mind. Even federal office workers are circulating more these days, though, visiting with constituents, vendors and distant coworkers.

And then there are the “traditional” teleworkers who don’t travel much at all — even to their own offices. Instead they work from home at least a few days a week, taking advantage of portable laptops and the Internet.

The New Office: Connected, Flexible

“The 21st century workplace is becoming more about how we work, not where we work. The workplace used to be based around hierarchical and controlled assembly lines; it is now characterized as collaborative, flexible, and mobile,” Martha Johnson, administrator of the federal General Services Administration (GSA) blogged just after the March 5-9 Telework Week.

“Technology now lets us be more mobile, and the work we do has changed; it relies less on being watched and more on being connected and getting the work done,” she said.

GSA has been both a pioneer in teleworking and, lately, an advocate for the adoption of mobile IT technology.

“There is no doubt there has been a convergence of the traditional ‘at home’ telework situation and the emergence of mobile capabilities. We have encouraged all employees to utilize these technologies, and we are working to move teleworking to the next level with the use of mobile devices,” Adam Elkington, a spokesperson for GSA, told CRM Buyer.

“Some time ago, we supplied all our employees with laptops, and we are now running a small pilot program to test the use of tablets,” he said.

As in the private sector, teleworking has expanded to include both at home and “on the go” remote working capabilities, involving laptops, smartphones and tablets. It also involves bolstering of the technical infrastructure to facilitate remote working, including software, connectivity, broadband capabilities and cybersecurity measures.

Programs Promote Mobility

The federal government actually began exploring the potential of allowing federal employees to work from home back in 1990, mainly as part of a transportation initiative to reduce commuting. Several congressional programs have been enacted since then, including the Telework Enhancement Act signed by President Obama in December 2010.

The 2010 law requires all federal agencies to establish a uniform telework policy, ensuring that most employees who want to telework are enabled to do so. The act requires federal agencies to develop training programs for teleworkers and managers, to include telework in continuity of operations plans, and to designate a Telework Managing Officer to lead the program at each agency.

The impact of the 2010 act has been mixed, according to a survey of federal agencies by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“The survey showed that some agencies are implementing the Telework Enhancement Act aggressively while others are lagging,” Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., told CRM Buyer. Connolly and Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., two principal authors of the 2010 act, requested the survey.

GSA, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been telework leaders.

“Other agencies like Treasury clearly have a long way to go just to designate employees as telework eligible, much less ensure they incorporate telework into their normal work routine so that we are prepared for emergency situations when telework suddenly becomes a necessity,” Connolly said.

“On balance, the surveys are reassuring because they show that we have made a lot of progress since passage of the act, and that probably is attributable in large part to leadership at the Office of Personnel Management and at certain individual agencies,” he added.

One encouraging sign came during this year’s Telework Week, conducted by the Telework Exchange. The number of employees who pledged to work remotely during the 2012 event reached 69,390, and 62,450 of those were federal workers. That far exceeded the 2011 level, when 39,694 employees pledged overall, and 34,136 of those were federal workers. The event was cosponsored by Cisco Systems.

For Cisco and an army of IT vendors, the opportunities related to federal telework and mobile device deployment are huge.

“Our offerings are geared to the complementary convergence of traditional telework and mobile workplace options,” Dan Kent, federal chief technology officer at Cisco, told CRM Buyer.

“We feel that the federal government will parallel the private sector in the mobile space but perhaps at a slower pace,” he said. That could still result in a major market opportunity, in view of Cisco’s February 2012 forecast, which predicts that mobile data traffic in the U.S. will grow 16-fold from 2011 to 2016, a compound annual growth rate of 74 percent.

Other providers have churned out various assessments of the federal telework-mobile situation. In a February 2012 report issued by CDW-G, 99 percent of 203 federal IT professionals said they had deployed mobile devices to their agency workforce. About 62 percent of those professionals said their agencies allowed employees to use personal devices for outwork.

Government IT professionals said they expected 19 percent of federal workers would be using tablets by 2013, versus only 7 percent now, in a survey conducted by MeriTalk. Smartphone use is expected to increase from 35 percent currently to 43 percent in 2013. The survey, also released in February 2012, was sponsored by VMware and Carahsoft.

“Between the tablet revolution and telework mandates, the federal government is quickly becoming mobile,” said Craig Abod, president of Carahsoft.

“To support the mobile workforce, agencies need to manage a growing number of devices and offer solutions that enhance productivity without sacrificing security,” he said.

Mobile Waste Spurs Caution

While the trend to utilize telework and mobile technologies is definitely positive, some challenges remain. The Obama administration is encouraging mobility — but at the same time is aware that there has been a lot of unproductive waste associated with the use of mobile devices.

Some federal employees are issued more cellphones, smartphones, laptops and tablet computers than they need to fulfill their duties, and IT devices that are purchased sometimes go unused, the White House said in a statement referencing an executive order on reducing waste in government that was issued last year.

“Each agency should take steps to limit the number of IT devices issued to employees, consistent with the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, operational requirements, and initiatives designed to create efficiency through the effective implementation of technology,” President Obama said in the order.

While Rep. Connolly encourages teleworking, he too feels that such initiatives should be undertaken and deployed in a productive way.

“Telework is all about improving delivery of public services, reducing costs for taxpayers, enhancing emergency preparedness, and improving recruitment and retention of highly skilled federal employees. That is the prism through which agencies should make decisions about different types of technology to use in order to maximize the benefits of telework,” he said.

In addition to ensuring that investments in telework technologies are made in a prudent fashion, agencies face operational hurdles. For example, a major concern remains the security of government IT systems in the mobile environment.

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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