Pope’s visit a telework test for feds

DOT uses traffic disruptions to test COOP program and let 2,800 employees telework

Agencies rarely have opportunities, as the Transportation Department did this month, to assess their continuity-of-operations plans. DOT used the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI to a nearby Washington landmark to test its COOP plan and telework on a large scale.

DOT headquarters is two blocks from Washington’s new Nationals Park baseball stadium, where the pontiff celebrated Mass April 17. As 46,000 people filled the stadium, traffic snarled. Meanwhile, passengers swamped the nearby Metro station, which DOT employees also use during their daily commutes.

About 60 percent of DOT’s 5,400 headquarters employees who are eligible to telecommute worked from home or another remote location that day, said Thomas Barrett, DOT’s deputy secretary. Others chose different scheduling or leave options.

“We didn’t want to shut down,” Barrett said. A federal department cannot be closed for business simply because of a difficult commute, he said.  

The pope’s visit enabled DOT officials to learn whether the department’s network could accommodate 2,000 employees logging on via secure remote access connections. Barrett said the network infrastructure performed well, although officials are still assessing the results.

To prepare employees for the day, DOT officials published reminders about remote access procedures and expanded help desk functions.

On average, about 2,000 employees were logged on at any one time that day. During a peak period, about 2,800 employees had secure remote access, Barrett said. “The most encouraging thing to me was the connections between our managers and employees seemed resilient and stable during the exercise.”

Teleworking employees used encrypted government-issued laptop PCs and a secure, encrypted network connection.

“Telecommuting is effective,” Barrett said. “It can work. We have to be ready to do our job under any circumstances.”

Barrett said he wants to stage another test with no advance notice to further test the agency’s preparedness.

DOT’s COOP test will provide data the department needs to improve its telework program, said Cindy Auten, general manager at the Telework Exchange, which sponsored an all-day telework conference April 22 in Washington.

“Transportation’s test was a great idea,” Auten said. “What we have found in so many instances, like with Hurricane Katrina, is that people weren’t prepared. This is a great proactive way to figure that out.”

DOT will assess the telecommuting results to learn whether employees were adequately equipped to telework for more than one day and how well they were able to communicate with their managers and co-workers. Auten said the results will reveal any weaknesses in the network infrastructure and show whether it can handle large numbers of employees logging in remotely and accessing files on the network.

From 2005 to 2006, more than half of  federal agencies reported increases in the percentage of employees teleworking, according to a recent report by the Office of Personnel Management to Congress. However, the total number of teleworking employees fell during the same period. In 2006, a total of 110,592 federal employees worked from an alternative site at least once a month, about 10,000 fewer than in 2005, OPM reported.

Telework poses considerable challenges for some agencies. For it to succeed, agencies must extend the security requirements of the Federal Information Security Management Act to equipment and systems used in telework, said Edward Meagher, deputy chief information officer at the Interior Department.

“You will have to do telework in a responsible manner, which has costs,” Meagher said. For example, he said, teleworkers should use encrypted, agency-issued computers and log on using two-factor identity authentication. 

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