GAO: More data needed on costs and benefits of telework

The government watchdog wants OPM to track the savings associated with telework and provide guidance for agencies to quantify the costs and benefits.

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The benefits of telework are more fully understood than the costs, but both could use more data to support them, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Aug. 1.

From April 2015 to July 2016, GAO audited telework programs at six agencies -- the Agriculture Department, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., General Services Administration, Merit Systems Protection Board and Transportation Department. The agencies said telework benefits included fewer employee absences, improved work/life balance, better recruitment and retention, and continuity of operations.

However, GAO said the agencies had little data to support the benefits or costs associated with their telework programs.

Telework is becoming an increasingly popular option among agencies. According to the Office of Personnel Management's 2014 annual report, the number of federal employees eligible to telework in 2013 increased nearly 50 percent to more than 1 million employees. But the cost savings are not fully understood.

"Given that agency employees are increasingly using telework, it is important that agencies examine the impact of using this tool on their performance and cost bottom lines," the GAO report states. "Even though agencies are not required to report on costs incurred by the act, Congress has a clear interest in the value of this flexibility offered to the federal workforce."

In 2012, agencies reported 66 examples of telework cost savings, but a year later, they reported only 29. In its 2014-2015 agency data request, OPM did not ask agencies for cost savings information. Officials said they streamlined the data call to focus on the requirements of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which does not require OPM to ask questions about overall cost savings associated with telework programs.

In its report, GAO recommends that OPM include cost savings questions when gathering data about telework and work with the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to develop more guidance for agencies on evaluating the costs and benefits of teleworking.

OPM officials agreed to include cost savings questions in future telework data calls beginning this year.