Agencies lack clear guidance on telework during emergencies, report says

Watchdog identifies problems with IT, personnel readiness related to federal telework and continuity of government operations.

Governmentwide guidance on telework does not clearly or comprehensively instruct agencies on incorporating the practice into their emergency planning, according to a new report.

Four agencies provide guidance on telework during emergencies: the Office of Personnel Management, the General Services Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Protective Service. None of the guidance, however, contains a standard definition of how to incorporate telework in individual agency continuity of operations plans or provides "a cohesive set of practices" that agencies can adopt, the Government Accountability Office found. The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act requires agencies to fold their telework policies into their continuity and emergency plans.

"This lack of a definition or description calls into question the reliability of the results of a survey OPM annually conducts to assess agencies' progress [on telework]," the report stated.

GAO identified other potential problems with the government's telework capabilities in an emergency in the areas of information technology, personnel readiness and program monitoring. Federal wireless networks are increasingly vulnerable to attack, GAO said, and a 2009 review from the watchdog found that, in an emergency where 40 percent or more of the population was absent from school or work, most residential users including federal teleworkers would experience congestion on the Internet.

The watchdog, which used OPM's annual telework survey and its 2010 evaluation of agency telework policies in its analysis, also found that not enough government workers telework routinely to make the practice a viable and efficient option during an emergency. And OPM told GAO that few agencies in Washington earlier this year were able to provide data on employees' use of telework during an emergency.

The February 2010 snowstorm in Washington prompted the government to close for four days, making telework important for the thousands of federal employees in the D.C. metropolitan area. While telework guidance from the four lead agencies has broadened to include references to using telework in an emergency, GAO said it's not sufficiently comprehensive and is too scattered among various documents to be effective.

The watchdog also criticized OPM and GSA for failing to incorporate the federal chief information officer community into telework emergency planning.

GAO recommended a standard definition of what constitutes folding telework into continuity of operations plans and specific guidance to agencies on how to do it effectively. The report also urged OPM to revise its methodology for collecting data on governmentwide telework to ensure more reliable information on how widely the practice is implemented. In addition, GAO recommended interagency coordination among the lead agencies to make sure all government operations are considered when OPM issues new or updated guidance on telework during emergencies.

OPM agreed with the report's recommendations.