Federal agencies have 48 hours to review, modify and start implementing policies and procedures that will realign critical resources to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
This includes offering “maximum telework flexibilities” for the federal workforce and may even include mandatory telework orders, the Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday night.
“The government must thoughtfully manage all our resources in a way that aligns with our desired outcome of slowing the transmission of COVID-19,” Russell Vought, OMB acting director, said in new guidance. “This aggressive posture may affect government operations as agencies work to balance the needs of mission-critical work and greater social distancing.”
“While the federal government remains operational, agencies must take appropriate steps to prioritize all resources to slow the transmission of COVID-19, while ensuring our mission-critical activities continue,” Vought added.
The timing of Tuesday night’s guidance coincided with another operating status change from the Office of Personnel Management.
Until further notice, all federal offices nationwide remain open but with “maximum telework flexibilities” for all currently eligible employees, OPM said.
The agency’s status update applied to all federal offices across the country, a rare move for OPM. Past OPM status changes only apply to the national capital region. The agency made a similar operating announcement Sunday night but only agencies and employees in the Washington, D.C. area.
Beyond expanding telework, the Trump administration included a long list of emergency actions agencies must take to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“The government must immediately adjust operations and services to minimize face-to-face interactions, especially at those offices or sites where people may be gathering in close proximity or where highly vulnerable populations obtain services,” Vought said.
Some agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the IRS have already begun to take these steps. SSA closed all field offices Tuesday, and the IRS has given its employees the freedom to decide whether they want to continue in-person interactions with their customers.
But OMB’s guidance takes the most aggressive stance yet on the matter.
There are some exceptions. Law enforcement and criminal justice functions will need to continue, as well as other agency services needed to protect public health and safety, Vought said.
Agency heads should realign employees and work units to higher-priority activities, he added.
“Agency heads shall utilize the full extent of their legal authority and discretion to execute this realignment of non-mission-critical activities, while also ensuring that their agencies continue to serve the American people and operate in the most efficient manner possible to deal aggressively and promptly with the current situation,” Vought said.
They should, for example, urge customers to delay their interactions with them if possible and communicate with the public how service levels might change.
Agencies should also identify and resolve possible supply chain challenges that could pose later bottlenecks or limit their ability to slow the spread the coronavirus, OMB.
In addition, agencies should review existing services and labor contracts and find ways to expand telework and other flexibilities.
Agency visitor policies may also need to change too, OMB said. Federal facilities should restrict access to individuals infected with the coronavirus, as well as those who are at higher risk for the illness.
“These agency policies must specifically include considerations not only for federal employees, but also for contractors and visitors while balancing the needs to perform mission critical functions,” Vought wrote.
Finally, agencies should streamline agency regulations and approval processes for critical services and consider waiving previous policies, OMB said.
Agencies so far have approached past OMB and OPM guidance on the coronavirus in a variety of ways. Telework policies have changed quickly and unevenly in recent days. Some agencies such as the Merit Systems Protection and the Securities and Exchange Commission have ordered mandatory telework for their employees.
But others have been slower to adapt. Some agencies have left it up to individual managers to interpret their new telework policies, leaving room for inconsistency and confusion across the department. Others have been slow to lift telework requirements that, in a normal scenario, may seem reasonable but have since sparked frustration among federal employees as circumstances grow increasingly abnormal.