Is the Tide Turning Against Federal Telework?

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

It’s time and attendance versus getting work done.

Days after a lawmaker asked the Justice Department to investigate U.S. Patent and Trademark Office teleworkers for allegedly misreporting their time and attendance, the head of the agency finally took a strong stand against the practice.

“Fraudulent time and attendance recording is unacceptable and must be met with appropriate disciplinary action,” PTO Deputy Director Michelle Lee told her staff in an email Friday. 

While Lee continued to stress the importance of the patent office’s telework programs in recruiting and retaining a highly skilled workforce capable of fairly examining complicated patent applications, The Washington Post described her email as an “about-face” from more encouraging messages she sent last month, after the paper first unearthed what would become a telework scandal.

The many federal bosses already uneasy with their staff working out of sight may conclude even successful telework programs could put them under an unwanted spotlight.

“Management resistance is by far the most frequently reported barrier to telework,” the Office of Personnel Management said in a governmentwide telework report published last December.

Lawmaker Seeks DOJ Probe

Discomfort with the idea of a dispersed workforce has also been reflected in the public response to the The Post's series of articles.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., compared the allegations -- few, if any, of which translated to actual work not getting done -- to extravagant spending on a General Services Administration conference in 2010.

Last week, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., describing himself as “one of the champions in Congress of telework,” requested a U.S. attorney open a criminal investigation into allegations that patent office employees defrauded the government by “getting paid for and/or receiving bonuses for time they had not worked.”

The allegation was based primarily on an internal report that quoted supervisors justifying their inaction in the wake of possible misreporting of time and attendance.

“I can determine if they are working based on production,” one supervisor said of patent examiners.

“I don’t care so much about hours as I do about the amount of work that gets done,” another said.

“Quite frankly, I don’t care what hours they work,” a third said.

PTO Employees Judged by 'Tightly Written' Performance Reviews

Robert D. Budens, president of the Patent Office Professional Association, a union that covers thousands of examiners and other patent office employees, has argued patent examiners have “the most tightly written, objective Performance Appraisal Plan," or PAP, in the government.

“Examiners’ time is tracked to six-minute intervals (1/10 of an hour),” Budens said in a recent blog post. “The PAPs require accountability for examiners’ time by assigning a certain number of hours to do a case for each examiner based on the particular technology being examined and the experience and authority of that examiner.”

The most relevant performance measures look at quantity and quality of work, not time and attendance. In fact, the very countable output of patent examiners -- number of applications reviewed, with quality controls in place -- may be a key reason the patent office had one of the earliest and most successful federal telework programs.

The government has long promoted telework as a way to provide workplace flexibility and ultimately save money. The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act further formalized the initiative by, among other things, requiring agencies to establish telework policies.

Telework has been credited with minimizing environmental impact by reducing commuters, saving on real estate costs because many teleworkers do not require the government to provide them with an office, allowing for continuity of operations during extreme weather and boosting morale.

Advocate: Bosses Should Manage Work, Not People

Advocates for telework say time and attendance is not the most useful measure of productivity.

“What’s the output that you need to get done? It’s an output metric, not an input metric,” John Vivadelli, CEO of AgilQuest, told Nextgov in August. AgilQuest is a software and services company focusing on the productivity of mobile workers.

Jody Thompson, co-founder of CultureRX, a Minneapolis consultancy, also noted that few of the issues are exclusive to telework.

“It gives me headache, actually to read this,” she said of news reports alleging telework abuse. “We have to help managers get better at managing work and stop focusing on managing people.”

PTO's Lee said in August that changes had already been made to the time and attendance reporting systems at the agency. She also cited a 2012 inspector general report that found examiners who teleworked reviewed on average 3.5 percent more applications each year.

“The telework program has been core, I think, to the success of this agency,” she said. “For an agency in need of highly skilled and highly technical talent who, candidly, could go elsewhere for more money, remaining focused on how we recruit them and retain them and work with them to meet their needs but yet also to make the agency’s need, is critical.”