Since 2010, telework has been lauded by federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, as the wave of the future. The flexibility of working by computer from home yields numerous advantages, from easing rush hour traffic and allowing families to monitor ailing children or elderly parents, to increasing productivity and reducing government’s carbon footprint. It also mirrored what was going on in the private sector. Yet across the Trump administration, telework is being scaled back. Not because it’s proven to be ineffective, but apparently because President Donald Trump and other senior government fear that somewhere, somehow, some government employees might be goldbricking — presumably because their immediate supervisors don’t see them sitting in a chair down the hall.
Nothing better illustrates this than what’s happened at SSA, which last November cancelled without explanation a popular telework program involving an estimated 12,000 federal employees who, since 2013, have had an opportunity to work one or two days per week from home. After the decision was made, Commissioner Andrew Saul issued a statement describing his agency as in the midst of a “workload crisis” and telework as an “experiment” that might jeopardize his goal of lowering wait times and improving performance.
Did the commissioner have evidence that telework was hurting performance? If he did, he hasn’t released it. And it’s noteworthy, too, that his decision was done without consultation with the union representing Social Security employees. That gives this decision all the trappings of classic Trump administration posturing: It was done without solid information, it gives the appearance of cracking down, reverses Obama administration policy that was widely lauded in the press, attacks organized labor and maintains the narrative of career federal workers as shiftless, lazy and ineffectual. Never mind that some of the most profitable companies in the United States rely on telecommuting from Fortune 500′s Google to American Express, Cigna to Deloitte.
And it would be one thing if this was only about Social Security, but the elimination of telecommuting appears widespread. As The Washington Post recently reported, it’s happening across multiple federal agencies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Are these decisions carefully considered and based on the best metrics available? Again, not that anyone has so far identified. Meanwhile, the most recent survey out of the government’s own Census Bureau is that roughly one-quarter of private employees teleworked in 2018. Telecommuting isn’t a fad, it’s become a way of life for millions of Americans. See the disconnect here?
Why should Americans who don’t work for the government care about this? There are lots of reasons. Not the least of which is that companies find it more efficient and effective. So why not make government more productive and cost-effective, too? Surely, telecommuting can be done badly if workers are not properly supervised, but so can employees who show up for cubicle duty and simply pretend to be engaged. Proper supervision is proper supervision whether it’s in person or across the internet. And one of the reasons telework has become so popular is that it helps companies recruit the best and the brightest. Why put government at a disadvantage in hiring?
But we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that telework is a particular help to the Baltimore area. Not only because of the presence of Social Security, but because while Maryland is home to an estimated 144,542 federal jobs, it’s within telecommuting distance of about 2.6 million others — or, in other words, the total nationwide federal workforce. Maryland’s location, its convenience to New York and D.C., its growing investment in education and the knowledge economy, relatively mild climate, and quality health care and longtime support for the civil service and the military, make it an attractive home for government workers. Baltimore is a mere MARC commuter train ride away from downtown D.C., but how much easier to make that choice to work at an organization based there if one doesn’t face a hour-plus commute every day?
If the Trump administration is so certain that telework is just an excuse for laziness, let agencies take a rational approach and measure the effects of existing programs or perhaps design new opportunities that can be documented. If telework doesn’t work, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of CEO’s who would benefit from that information, since it’s so far eluded them.