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

court.

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

are unfilled.

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.

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