Brave New World, Brave New Rules
Virginia's Gov. Gilmore has stated, "We must rethink the old rules, the
old models, the old ways by which government has always operated."
Indeed, in the Digital Age, the individual — not government — is setting
the rules. But the old rules of the federal bureaucracy apparently have
not come to terms with this new and empowering digital world.
The contrast was never clearer than with the Nov. 11, 1999, advisory
letter by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that proposed
regulating the home offices of citizens across the country. More than simply
a letter, this was a binding, regulatory action with legal standing in
Such heavy-handed actions throw cold water on states' efforts to harness
the power of the new economy, which can be fueled by allowing individuals
to work from home.
Like other areas of the nation with growing urban areas and work force
shortages in critical occupations, Virginia views "telework" as a great
example of developing new rules for a new economy.
Our transportation officials understand that we require a comprehensive
approach to meeting commuters' needs, including making more efficient use
of the technology infrastructure we have in place.
And our business community knows we must be open to multiple ways of
retaining employees already in the work force, as well as attracting qualified
individuals who may be "on the sidelines" for family or lifestyle reasons.
This is a particular concern in the technology field, where employees are
in high demand. Within Virginia, for example, about 30,000 high-tech positions
We realize that we will not be able to address the complex issues of
the 21st century with the narrow thinking that has so often characterized
government bureaucracies. Our economy and our society, indeed every aspect
of the way we live, are rapidly moving into the Information Age. The tired
rules of a fading society should not be the basis on which government operates
in the coming years. Many of Gilmore's major initiatives cut across traditional
program boundaries to comprehensively address core issues and problems.
That is certainly the case with the governor's telework proposal, which
is circulating in the Virginia General Assembly. The initiative includes
$10 million in tax credits for firms that support new telework opportunities
in Virginia and encourages technology companies to look to high unemployment
areas for developing teleworking centers. It passed the Assembly's House
of Delegates last month by a vote of 89-10, and it has a high level of support
as it moves to the state Senate.
The program is intended to jump-start teleworking initiatives in key
areas of the state, where they can have maximum impact from transportation,
work force and lifestyle perspectives. Employers would be eligible for tax
credits of up to $2,000 per new teleworking employee. This program has the
potential to generate as many as 5,000 new teleworkers.
Had OSHA chosen to proceed with its new policy, it would have had a
tremendously chilling effect on Virginia's telework effort.
Prospective employer participants would have cut off discussions immediately.
Those who had signed up would have deluged us with calls about rescinding
commitments. In short, the collaborative state and regional efforts that
we are so carefully building could have been wiped out.
Thankfully, U.S. Labor Department Secretary Alexis Herman wisely, but
belatedly, withdrew the advisory letter weeks later. Had she not, I question
whether we would have been able to regain momentum and credibility at what
would have been a critical time in our program.
OSHA's Nov. 11 advisory letter is a perfect example of old-world rules
being applied disastrously to the new-world economy.
We realize that telework, though simple in concept, is a complex issue
with potential benefits in many areas of our economy and many segments of
our citizenry. It is a concept, therefore, that requires all of us — employers,
employees and government at all levels — to rethink old notions of the workplace.
Some futurists tell us that tomorrow's Information Age workers will
be predominantly independent contractors, working out of their own homes.
Even if that proves only partially true, the specter of OSHA inspectors
traipsing house-to-house is one we need to head off now.
We should not look at the Nov. 11 letter and its fallout as an isolated
incident. The old bureaucracy will not be able to come to grips with the
Digital Age overnight, and those types of incidents will occur again. Government
must break the mold and approach this brave new world with brave new rules
that are innovative, unique and often untried.
— Upson is Virginia's secretary of technology.