Telework tests await networks, federal agencies

As more agencies are forced to move employees to telework, some will face initial growing pains.

woman at laptop (SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock.com)
 

Telework expansion is becoming an inevitability for a heavy portion the U.S. workforce, including a growing contingent of federal workers.

But the expansion will likely come with some pain points for agencies that aren't accustomed to having a lot of teleworkers, according to some experts on federal agencies and technology.

One pain point could be the underlying infrastructure that supports telework for everyone, according to Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group and a former commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service.

"A surge in telework for agencies that haven't previously embraced it are in the worst place," in adapting to it, he said. Some agency employees who live in less-populated areas and are accustomed to commuting to agencies in metropolitan areas, could be hamstrung by a larger rural broadband connectivity challenge, he said.

"Not everyone lives in Georgetown," said Woods. "You don't have to drive far" in the Washington D.C. region "until you're in HughesNet territory," he said, referring to the broadband satellite service that provides connectivity to rural areas.

One of the biggest issues if agencies move big contingents of their workforce to their homes or remote locations to weather the viral outbreak, according to Stan Soloway, president and CEO at Celero Strategies, will be sheer traffic volume on agency virtual private networks (VPN) not set up to handle big traffic loads.

"If you're set up for 10% workforce telework capacity on Fridays, then jump to 80%," said Soloway, "you've got to wonder if the VPN can handle that." Even though agencies are required to have emergency plan, he said, "the government is far from ready" for a huge shift online.

The current administration's telework policy has been muddled with initial discouragement then retrenching to allow more, could add to some agencies' initial telework efforts, said Soloway.

"The issue is exacerbated when you're discouraged to not set up for a remote workforce," he said.

Agencies that have long standing programs have learned lessons, sometimes painfully, from their progress.

For instance, back in 1997, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) began a program for 18 of its lawyers to work from home for a few days a week, via telework.

Over two decades later, the agency said it has over 11,000 employees teleworking.

Along the way, however, in 2016, the agency was rapped by the Government Accountability Office, and later in congressional hearings, for some employee abuse of telework. The GAO report found in one case that a patent examiner bilked the U.S. government out of more than $25,000 in misreported hours, and often played golf or socialized while on the clock.

Andrei Iancu, the PTO's newly installed director, told Congress was taking steps to lock down time and attendance policy.

In the agency's 2018 report on its telework program, which is the latest available, the agency said it 88% of its employees work remotely one to five days a week.

In the report, Iancu said the program has "enhanced the USPTO's resiliency during continuity events, such as weather-related closures, because many of our employees can continue to work through them." He pointed to a National Academy of Public Administration study that found the program saved the agency an average of $7 million per year based on work conducted during closures.

A spokesman for the agency would not comment on any planned alterations of its telework program to specifically adapt to the coronavirus.

An upside to the increase in telework, said Woods, is it will permanently alter how the federal government views the practice, warts and all. "It's going to leave a mark," on agencies' move ahead. It might even leave a mark on federal broadband policy, as more commercial telecommunications carriers see more demand for transmission bandwidth in areas with a lot of federal employees, as well as private company teleworkers, he said.

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