Telework in COOP Plans Helps Government Keep on Truckin’

October 12th, 2010

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By Adrian Wilairat

Late last month, federal employees around the nation received a long-overdue gift: news that they’d soon be working under a federal telework policy.

Through the Sept. 30 passage of the Telework Improvements Act of 2010, Congress will require every executive branch agency to implement a policy through which eligible employees can telework. Moreover, the law directs agencies to incorporate their telework policies into their Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans. Congress’s acknowledgement of the necessity of telework and its role in COOP planning allows telework to play a vital role in ensuring that in any emergency, the most critical government functions continue to be performed.

The severe snowstorms on the East Coast earlier this year highlighted telework’s importance in providing continuity of essential functions. Conditions were so treacherous that federal offices in the Washington metropolitan area closed for four-and-a-half days. Although the snow brought many operations to a grinding halt, it didn’t stop Martha Johnson, the General Service Administration’s newly appointed Secretary who was snowbound in her home, from being sworn into office . . . over her cell phone.

This resourcefulness and technological adeptness of Johnson caught the attention of her boss: President Obama. Recognizing the necessity of the continued performance of government operations under all circumstances, the President directed John Berry, the director of the Office of Personnel Management, to increase telework options for federal employees. Said Berry, “The president made it clear to me that he doesn’t want snow, nature, or any other cause, to be able to stop our government.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. In that one sentence, President Obama succinctly captured the essence of COOP planning. Without a telework program in place, ensuring continuity of operations would be quite difficult.

There needn’t be a snowpocalypse for telework to have value. There are several everyday benefits to allowing employees to work remotely:

  • Increased productivity
  • Reduction of time spent commuting
  • Decreased pollution and traffic
  • Attracting new employees as much of the federal workforce reaches retirement eligibility

Yes, there are drawbacks. The potential for security breaches and bandwidth overload must be addressed. And if people are working from home, is there a chance that instead of populating spreadsheets and completing cost reports, employees will spend their days shopping on eBay or watching episodes of Jersey Shore? Of course. But one can already do that in the office (so I’ve been told).

Although no policy is foolproof, the Telework Improvements Act includes comprehensive safeguards to address these concerns.

Regarding security, the law requires the Office of Management and Budget, with assistance from DHS and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to issue security guidelines with detailed requirements. Concerning increased number of users’ burdening network capacity, the bill requires training and monitoring programs, which should be used to ensure that the systems aren’t overloaded. And in terms of productivity, the law mandates that the policies “ensure that telework does not diminish employee performance or agency operations.”

Telework and its value for COOP is something near and dear to CHHS. Not only do we manage COOP planning for numerous state, county, and local agencies, but we also teach and deliver a DHS-certified course, Preparing the States: Implementing Continuity of Operations Planning, which is designed for state, county, local, tribal, and territorial emergency managers and their staffs. This course emphasizes telework as a necessity for ensuring that an agency’s most critical functions can be performed no matter the circumstance.

The benefits of telework dwarf the negatives. The recently passed Telework Improvements Act of 2010 has the requirements and controls to allow telework to help ensure that whatever the disaster, be it another snowmageddon or simply a power outage, federal employees have the capability to continue to perform essential functions. Let’s give it a shot.

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