Bice says changes to USDA’s telework policy sought to reach equilibrium

The Agriculture Department was one of the first agencies to reduce how many days an employee could telework.

The decision created upheaval and frustration among many employees.

Don Bice had the job of implementing what some would call the Secretary’s controversial decision to reduce a popular and successful remote working program.

Bice recently left after 32 years in government, including the last two-plus years as USDA’s acting deputy assistant secretary for administration. He will join Morgan Franklin, a consulting firm, where he will focus on good government and customer service issues.

He said while the policy change may have upset some employees, it also swung the proverbial pendulum back toward equilibrium.

Don Bice, left in March after spending the last two years as USDA’s acting deputy assistant secretary for administration.

“When you talk about the unfortunate examples that everyone is aware of, they recognize there was some abuse of the system and that led to some negative reaction toward teleworking. I liken it to a pendulum and the pendulum has swung so far in assuming everybody should be teleworking all the time, it really impacted our ability to deliver on the mission,” Bice said in an interview with Federal News Network. “We had some rules, in particular at the department, where you annually had to tell every employee in writing whether they were eligible to telework and it was part of a grievance eligibility. We had some managers who were in perpetual grievances with employees about whether they could telework or not telework and it distracted from the actual reason we were there, which is achieving the mission and the efficiency of the service.”

He said the current policy does a better job of recognizing who is eligible to telework and ensuring they have that ability.

“To me the ultimate way to tell if it’s working or not is to look at our key performance indicators, the things that we rate ourselves on, our strategic plan and annual performance goals and say ‘are we meeting those?’ If we are not meeting those, then those are a red flag,” Bice said. “We are meeting those and we continue to meet those so the achievement of our mission has not changed based on the change in the telework policy.”

Bice acknowledged the policy change was hard on some employees and he said he did his best to talk to different offices about the impact and concerns.

A model program for years

While Bice is looking at the performance indicators as one measure of whether or not the telework policy changed anything, the impact on employee morale and therefore the mission cannot be overlooked.

For several years, USDA’s telework program was a model for other agencies. Forbes named USDA to its top 500 places to work in 2015, in part because of its telework policy. Additionally, USDA has saved millions of dollars over the past five years because of telework.

In fiscal 2017, the Office of Personnel Management reported in its annual telework report to Congress that more USDA employees did become eligible to telework—62,744 in 2017 compared with 58,635 during the previous year. Data for 2018 or 2019 are not available yet.

One USDA employee said in 2018 soon after the agency changed its telework policy that it was “a truly personal and targeted effort to remove one of the highest ranking benefits that feds value and rely on to achieve a work-family balance (see the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey). And it’s a benefit accepted in the business world to increase productivity, improve morale, reduce turnover and save money.”

Bice said the change in policy, over the longer term, will result in achieving the right balance for USDA and its employees.

“The other thing that was interesting is we had an increase in the number of people who applied to do telework after we changed the policy. We had more people who were eligible to telework based on supervisor determinations. We also had more people who signed up to do more regular telework than before we made the change in policy so I think people saw they had the opportunity to telework and some people took those opportunities where they may not have taken it before,” he said.

More resilient and flexible today

Bice added USDA now is more resilient and flexible in some ways today than ever before.

When the need to have most federal employees telework because of the coronavirus pandemic, USDA was one of the first agencies out of the gate in maximizing remote working.

Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky released guidance the same day as the Office of Management and Budget and ramped employee participation up starting March 17.

Initially, some employees expressed concern about the language USDA executives were using — “business as usual” — when describing how to move forward in the face of the pandemic.

Bice said that term was meant to signal the need and desire to continue to meet USDA’s mission no matter the obstacles.

“Because of our diverse nature of where we are all across the country, it means something different, even office to office,” he said. “We have offices in some of the hardest hit areas on the west coast. We were flexible enough to allow different changes to policies even before we had direction from the White House and from the Office of Personnel Management to be more liberal with telework. We actually were looking at that based on the outbreaks and what we were hearing from local people who were being impacted. We were allowing additional telework.”

Bice said what’s important today and in the future after the emergency is over, USDA may need to reset how employees deliver services and what is required to do that.

“It’s going to be a communication between employees and supervisors to say, ‘it either worked or it didn’t.’ If it worked more, then maybe we should entertain whether there are more opportunities to telework, or there are a new set of things that you can do when you telework because the technology is better than ever before,” Bice said. “Maybe we can do some of the things that we couldn’t do before because we didn’t have to do them remotely, but now we can do them remotely. So let’s think about ways we can be paperless. Let’s think about ways we can change our processes without changing the underlying outcomes that we want. Maybe there are things we don’t need to do to be more efficient in how we do it, and this is an opportunity to think about doing things differently.”