Biden officials are defending telework policies assailed by Republicans

Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja said flexibilities like telework and remote work, where possible, are central to the Biden administration’s effort to revitalize the federal workforce and improve agency efficiency.

Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja said flexibilities like telework and remote work, where possible, are central to the Biden administration’s effort to revitalize the federal workforce and improve agency efficiency. Maskot/Getty Images

Officials from OPM and OMB emphasize that they are focused on improving agencies’ customer service and reforming the recruitment of early career talent into the federal workforce.

Officials from the Biden administration on Thursday defended federal agencies’ approach to workplace flexibilities like telework and remote work from skeptical Republicans, who have grown more stridently against the concept of hybrid work environments in recent months.

In testimony before the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on government operations, Office of Personnel Management Director Kiran Ahuja said flexibilities like telework and remote work, where possible, are central to the administration’s effort to revitalize the federal workforce and improve agency efficiency.

“One lesson we have learned throughout the pandemic is that workplace flexibilities, such as telework and hybrid work schedules, can promote resilience of federal government operations in the face of disruptions, enhance productivity, and improve employee morale,” she said. “During this time, we have seen the private-sector labor market—and what workers expect from their jobs—change quickly. Private-sector employers have had to quickly learn how to respond to employee needs. Federal employers must do the same to attract and retain talent in this tight labor market.”

But Republicans on the committee criticized the idea of providing additional “perks” to “bureaucrats,” and blamed teleworking workers for service backlogs at agencies like the IRS, OPM and the Social Security Administration.

“On telework and remote work, the Biden administration wants to make these things permanent, never mind the fact that there has been no assessment of how telework impacts agency performance,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., the subcommittee’s ranking member. “Why would we make something permanent that we haven't even checked into for its effectiveness? President Biden said [at the State of the Union address in March] that federal employees would soon be back in the office. Well, they’re still not back in the office . . . Many people cannot get services from agencies because nobody is in the office.”

Over the course of the pandemic, despite the government’s maximum telework stance, roughly half of federal employees continued to report to traditional worksites every day because their duties could not be performed remotely. Since March, many agencies have begun requiring employees who had been teleworking full time to return to their duty stations, although they have adopted a phased approach and continue to employ telework, in part due to workplace safety due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Hice and other Republicans repeatedly cited a report in the conservative Washington Free Beacon that leaked internal data from the Health and Human Services Department showed that “an estimated 25%” of HHS employees failed to log onto agency networks between March and December 2020. Government Executive has been unable to verify the story, and HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

“A recent report claims that as many as one quarter of HHS employees never even logged into their emails for the first 10 months of the pandemic,” Hice said. “This has to have an enormous impact on the agency.”

Ahuja and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Jason Miller both committed to looking into the report’s claims, but stressed that telework is being employed strategically in organizations where it can improve employee productivity and agency efficiency.

“I’m not aware of the incident you described, but more than 50% of the workforce during the pandemic—and now—showed up every single day because that’s what their work required them to do,” Ahuja said. “We’re talking about a subset of the workforce utilizing some of these flexibilities . . . in order to optimize customer service and operations and to have those employees stay in their organizations. We have a real competition out there with the private sector because they’re employing these same flexibilities.”

“This sounds like one of those urban myths, but we certainly want to get to the bottom of it,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the subcommittee.

Hice asked Miller if the administration conducted any studies about how expanding telework from pre-pandemic levels on a permanent basis would impact agencies’ performance.

“Agencies are required to manage and report [that information] as part of their annual performance plans of organizational units, including those with the roughly half of federal employees who expanded the use of telework during the pandemic,” Miller said. “So managing performance and assessing performance at the agency and operational unit level ahs been done. It’s also something we provided guidance on both to agencies last year and in June, to both build evidence plans and develop data around the performance of organizational units, including regarding the use of telework.”

“I’d like to see that data,” Hice said.

Connolly focused on early administration efforts to revamp internship programs across the federal government. Over the last decade, internship programs have become less effective in recruiting young federal workers. The Biden administration is in the midst of an effort to expand the use of paid internships at federal agencies, although OPM lacks the authority to collect and analyze data from all of the government’s many internship programs.

“I’ve shared my chagrin at the complete lack of uniformity or any kind of systematic approach [in federal internships],” Connolly said. “In fact, in some agencies, it would be better to abolish any internships than continue them, because we have people saying after they complete their internship, ‘I’d rather put my head through a pencil sharpener than ever work for the federal government.’ That’s how successful those internships are. And when we contrast this with the private sector, it is unbelievably different.”

Miller said the administration hopes that requiring agencies to pay their interns will force them to improve those experiences.

“Paid internships gives us a mechanism for agencies to have better measurement and accountability,” he said. “By paying for interns, it increases the incentive structure in an agency to provide a good experience, so they’re getting a return on investment, including by converting them into early career talent. It also improves our personnel vetting system, since internships gets people earlier in their career into the clearance process.”

This article was published first on GovExec, a FederalSoup partner site. 

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