COOP makes a telework connection

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on continuity-of-operations planning. Read the second part of the COOP series.

Thomas Barrett, deputy secretary of the Transportation Department, encapsulates the human dimension of continuity-of-operations planning in simple terms: “We have to be able to do our job under any circumstances.”

On a tactical level, making sure that employees get their day-to-day work done in a crisis situation is a significant human capital issue. On a larger level, it’s a question of whether a government agency can marshal the collective productivity to deliver its mission-critical services, whatever the crisis scenario might be — a terrorist attack on its building, a major fire in its headquarters or a flu epidemic that keeps workers at home.

For the most part, this means creating the capability for employees to work from home or other remote locations and having an information technology infrastructure that is robust enough to support remote access to vital agency computer systems.

In April, DOT officials decided to test the agency’s ability to keep its operations going and deliver services if something happened to its new headquarters building and employees had to work away from the main office. Officials scheduled the test to coincide with Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to nearby Nationals Park baseball stadium, a day they knew the area around their building would be congested with traffic, and Washington’s Metro subway system would be packed with riders.

At the time, about 22 percent of the department’s employees were teleworking at least one day a month, Barrett told the Telework Exchange’s town hall meeting a week after the COOP demonstration. So some of the groundwork was already laid for the exercise.

The experiment, the largest department-level COOP demonstration in government to date, proved to be something of a watershed moment for COOP. It worked, and it worked well.

At one point during the day, more than 60 percent of DOT’s 5,400 headquarters employees were logged on to the department’s network from home or remote sites. The employees used encrypted,
government-issued laptop PCs and accessed a secure, encrypted network connection.

“We tested our ability to function with the vast majority [of employees] away from headquarters,” Barrett said. “We had operational continuity. We had continued strong communication between leadership and our employees and pretty seamless ability to conduct our business. It certainly showed us that the ability to function as a department in emergency conditions was a reality.”

It was especially impressive that about 35 percent of the exercise participants had never teleworked.

“They got to do it for the first time and learned how to log in [to the agency’s network] through secure remote access or Outlook Web access,” Barrett said. “They went through the process of connecting to their work site in a way that matched our security requirements, and it also allowed them to function productively.”

“We think [telework] is essential in the event of an emergency here in the Washington, D.C., area,” he added.

Practice makes perfect
The nexus between COOP and telework has become increasingly important in recent years, underscored and reinforced by high-magnitude events such as the 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Most government managers now believe telework should be a crucial part of an agency’s COOP, according to a study released last year. In a Juniper Networks survey, 62 percent of managers at federal  agencies and state and local governments said telewor k was key to an agency’s COOP activities.

It is especially applicable in scenarios in which social distancing is necessary, such as a flu epidemic, they said. More than 41 percent believed telework is so critical to COOP that all employees should telework o c casionally as a form of COOP preparation.

That wasn’t always the case, said Haywood Talcove, vice president of Public Sector Americas at Juniper. “In the past, people talked about the need for federal workers to telecommute for reasons like saving energy, being more efficient and [enhancing] work time,” he said.

Developing a telecommuting workforce that is experienced and comfortable with working remotely on a routine basis is now seen as intrinsic to COOP. Those employees don’t need to master new computer programs, and managers learn to supervise a virtual workforce by doing it under normal conditions, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s Manager’s/Decisionmaker’s Emergency Guide.
At some agencies, aggressive efforts to promote telework have produced striking results.

For example, at the Labor Department, about half of the 16,500 workers are equipped to telework, and about 3,500 do so regularly, said Patrick Pizzella, assistant secretary of administration and management and also Labor’s chief information officer and chief human capital officer. The Office of Personnel Management’s December 2007 report to Congress on the status of telework cited Labor for its efforts in using telework to prepare for a pandemic flu outbreak.

One stumbling block to making telework more commonplace is that — despite recent efforts to encourage the practice governmentwide — relatively few federal workers do it. Only 6.1 percent of eligible employees telework, according to OPM’s most recent report to Congress on the status of telework in the federal government.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s federal workforce subcommittee, is trying to change that. The congressman’s Telework Improvements Act of 2008 would require agencies to allow eligible employees to telework at least 20 percent of their working hours every two weeks.

The measure also would compel agencies to incorporate telework in their COOP efforts, a practice not now required. Fewer than half of federal agencies — 42 percent — have integrated telework into emergency planning, OPM said in its report to Congress.

The House passed the Davis bill, which has bipartisan support, June 3. A counterpart bill in the Senate, the Telework Enhancement Act, has won the approval of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. As a result, advocates of expanded telework programs are optimistic that the legislation will become law this year.

But even if telework programs are expanded across government, many employees might not want to telework — it’s not mandatory — or might not be eligible for a variety of reasons. Accordingly, an agency COOP must include ways to communicate with those employees during a crisis. In general, that means the use of BlackBerry devices, handheld PCs, cell phones or the plain old telephone.

“Our goal is to have as many as we can teleworking,” Barrett said. “Once we get beyond the computer or the BlackBerry, we’re talking telephone — it’s phone-tree list,” a prearranged, pyramid-shaped system for contacting a group of people by telephone. But he stressed that any employee with a computer and Internet access at home can connect to the agency’s network through secure remote access.

“That was one of the things we worked on: providing that potential connectivity to employees,” he said.
For long-term emergency situations, however, the best practice for maintaining vital services is to have mission-critical employees ready to work from remote locations, government officials say.

OPM officials say nonteleworking employees whose role is essential in an emergency should periodically telework so they feel comfortable with using the equipment and procedures and working in alternate locations. ; >
Agencies also should have telework agreements in place that delineate COOP responsibilities for those employees, they added.

Overall, training and practice are key to COOP.
“A COOP exercise involves everybody, whether you telework or don’t telework,” Pizzella said. “They all have to be prepared.”

In addition to regular exercises, Labor provides a steady stream of updates to workers via its intranet on the status of COOP and their COOP responsibilities. The department also uses an 800 number to help locate employees in the event of an emergency.

Virtual attendance check
For all employees, a major COOP issue from a human capital perspective is employee accountability — finding out where people are, said James McDermott, chief human capital officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a member of the Chief Human Capital Officers Council’s emergency preparedness subcommittee.

“If something happens in a building, how do you know who’s there — who’s in, who’s out?” he asked. “What do you do about the people who nobody knows where they are? That’s a huge issue.”
McDermott said the subcommittee is exploring the matter and has been briefed on potential solutions.
For example, the Navy Department is using an accountability system designed to determine employees’ whereabouts when they boot their computers.

“When you log on to your computer in the morning, it asks you: ‘Where are working today?’ and you have an array of buttons to punch,” McDermott said. “Your supervisor can log on and say, ‘Where is so-and-so today?’ That would tell us right away who’s in the building and who’s not in the building.”

At Transportation, teleworking employees are required to check in when they work remotely, Barrett said.
“It’s not simply a ‘check that they’re working’ issue, it’s an ‘are they OK?’ issue,” he said. “We have a fairly standardized process for doing an accountability check on our employees in an emergency, and we ran that in tandem with the telework exercise.”

In the end, the human capital component of COOP is a matter of good planning, good practice and constant communication with employees, Pizzella said.

“You hope to be well prepared for any situation, and you hope you never have to execute your preparations so the challenge is to build confidence in employees that they can handle a COOP situation, should it arise,” he said. 

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