OPM needs more reliable telework data, watchdog says

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The Government Accountability Office says that until the Office of Personnel Management implements recommendations on its telework data, it won't be able to show a clear and accurate picture of telework across the government.

The Office of Personnel Management has work left to do to improve the accuracy of data on federal teleworking, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. 

OPM asks agencies for data on telework levels annually, which it reports to Congress. But long standing data issues are still potentially impacting the reliability of the data OPM produces on telework, GAO says, and OPM hasn't implemented most of the relevant recommendations from GAO first put forth in 2016. 

"Having robust telework data is important for managing and improving telework programs," a new report reads. "Until OPM develops a plan to fully implement our recommendations to improve data reliability issues … it will continue to be unable to precisely assess telework usage across agencies and provide a full and accurate picture to Congress to support oversight."

Currently, OPM gathers teleworking data from agencies through an annual data call. GAO has previously reported in 2017 that agencies report back using information from different systems that define and measure telework differently, which limits the ability to compare teleworking levels across agencies. 

GAO recommended that OPM strengthen its controls for reviewing and validating this telework data – something that OPM disagreed with, although it told GAO it has taken some steps to "mitigate data accuracy issues to the extent possible."

Separately, the government watchdog released several recommendations for how OPM could improve its payroll data in 2016, but GAO says that OPM hasn't fulfilled most of them. 

The personnel office did respond to one recommendation by updating its main data warehouse on federal employees, the Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) database, to include data on telework – something that could help align telework data across agencies. This database was designed to integrate personnel, payroll, training and retirement databases. 

OPM officials say that eventually this telework data could be used instead of the current methods of gathering data from agencies, but GAO says that OPM will need to implement the rest of the watchdog's recommendations for that to happen. 

These other, currently unfulfilled recommendations center on monitoring error reports; making a schedule to integrate payroll data into larger databases and bolstering internal control activities for EHRI. OPM did concur with these recommendations, but the agency pins its inaction on a lack of resources for data initiatives, the GAO report says. 

"While it is encouraging that OPM has taken some steps to improve its collection of government-wide telework information, it has not developed a plan to address long-standing data reliability issues that would improve its oversight of agencies' telework and provide more accurate and useful information to Congress," the report reads. "Until OPM develops a plan and timeline for implementing these recommendations, long-standing data issues will continue to persist."

GAO recommended that Congress consider requiring the personnel office to set a deadline for the development of a plan to improve the reliability of information in EHRI.