A U.S. Senate committee unanimously approved legislation this week that should increase the number of federal employees working from home, which in turn would reduce energy use and traffic in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
The bill would make all employees eligible for telework unless they have to be in the office every day to use equipment or handle "secure materials." The current standard is that employees are not eligible to work from home unless they obtain permission.
Midge Butler, a lawyer for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, works from her Owings Mills home. Her office, which she is required to drive to once a week, is 70 miles away in Alexandria, Va.
She commuted to Northern Virginia each workday for 12 years before the patent office expanded its telework program and she earned enough seniority to participate.
"As time went on, they always spoke about the telework program - it was always a carrot dangling in front of you," said Butler, 47. "They opened up the program a lot earlier than I was able to get into it. It really was always based on how long you'd been there."
Butler hopes that under the legislation, seniority-based participation would end, and the program would be open to anyone who wants to participate.
Survey after survey of managers in the public and private sectors have found a reluctance to accept telework because they fear losing control and worry that their employees will slack off.
The Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership, and the Federal Managers Association found that only 35 percent of the 214 federal managers surveyed this year felt that their agency supported telecommuting.
In announcing the bill's approval by the committee, sponsors promoted the environmental and economic benefits of telework. The average employee spends 245 hours a year commuting, and working from home two days a week could save a family more than $55 a month in gas at $3 a gallon, according to the Telework Exchange.
"I save a lot of gas money, and wear and tear on my car," Butler said. "I don't have to put new tires on as much as I used to. I don't have to spend as much on dry cleaning. I feel I really help the environment every day I don't get in a car."
The Telework Exchange survey found that managers understood those benefits but failed to grasp the importance of telework to disaster planning and national security. Should Washington shut down, teleworkers would become the backbone of continuing operations.
The bill would define a "teleworker" as someone who works from home or at site more convenient to home two days a week; require agencies to put someone in charge of a telework initiative; and require agencies to submit progress reports to Congress. The U.S. House of Representatives is working on similar legislation.
Butler said she has never moved from Owings Mills because "that's where I'm from." She went to college in Baltimore, got her first job in Baltimore and her children were growing up there. She said she never expected to spend 12 years at the Patent office but stayed for the telework program and other benefits.
"The hours I used to use on the road, sitting in traffic frustrated, now I'd rather work a few extra hours," Butler said. "The office is getting more out of me, and I'm getting more money out of the office" by not commuting.
President Bush this week ordered agencies to set annual and long-term goals, to lay out plans to fix problems and assign "performance improvement officers" to measure progress.
The executive order signed Tuesday is likely the capstone on Bush's efforts to bring corporate management strategies into the federal service. Already, the Bush administration assigns agencies green, yellow and red lights to signal how well they're doing at achieving their goals.
Implementation of the new order won't be complete until next year, meaning its success will largely hinge on whether the next administration buys the concept.
Under the executive order, performance improvement officers would be high-ranking executives - possibly appointees - and be responsible for building the agency's strategic plan.
They would ensure that agency goals are "realistic," progress measurements are "rigorous" and "accurate," and inefficient programs are improved. Each agency would have a Web page, explaining its programs' strengths and weaknesses to the public.
Many agencies, however, rely on corporate-style goal-setting - in fact, it is required by law.
"I've had conversations with executives who are frustrated because they have to report to the CIO, CFO and CHCO [chief human capital officer] for various initiatives," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. "Everyone has a separate set of objectives. Where are the priorities? What's coming first, second or whatever? If [the performance improvement officer] can direct the traffic, it's probably a fine idea."
The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris @baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent back issues can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.