How Congress is forcing agencies to confront telework, and those public service student loans

At least some members of Congress are pushing for telework to become a big and permanent feature of federal employment. The latest gambit is a bill that require...

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At least some members of Congress are pushing for telework to become a big and permanent feature of federal employment. The latest gambit is a bill that requires agencies to gather statistics about telework and prevent them from restricting it. It’s called the Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act. Federal Drive with Tom Temin  has more from one of its sponsors, Maryland Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes.

 Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Well, let’s start with what the bill requires in terms of data collection metrics collection, what do you want to know, from agencies through this bill?

John Sarbanes: We’ve had really robust telework over the last 10 years. And I was very pleased back in 2010, to help author the Telework Enhancement Act with Congressman Connolly from Virginia and so forth. We got that in place really, to encourage federal agencies to increase their uptake, their deployment of telework across the federal government, and that worked pretty well. But we understand we have got to come back and do real evaluation, you want to make sure that data is being collected well. You want to make sure that, you know, any sort of bumps in the road that these agencies have encountered over the last few years, or lessons that have been learned as we’ve been in the middle of pandemic, the things that really put pressure on the federal workforce and make telework a real important option. That we’re learning those lessons, that we’re gathering the data. So what this new bill does, which is called as you indicated, it’s not a sexy title, but it’s Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act, is to is to gather up that data. So it would make sure there are standards in place for how we collect and use federal agency data that’s related to telework. It would make sure that the training that’s happening is being done in an effective way. So supervisors really know how to push this out and make it available to the workforce. It would guide the agencies good management practices with respect to telework. So all the things you’d like to see, to make sure that that remains a robust option going forward. But it also would require some real accountability and transparency. So the federal telework option sort of how agencies are using it, they’re going to be required to report on that annually to OPM, on sort of the goals, priorities, how they’re expanding access to telework, reporting to Congress, if there’s any proposed reductions in telework. And that’s important, because I for one, and I know many of my colleagues, think this is a really important tool. And we don’t want agencies sort of arbitrarily cutting back on it without providing a good explanation of that. So this bill would put that requirement in place. And then a real important thing, just to close here is there’s been some fuzziness about the how remote work is considered or defined within the category of telework. And this bill would help clarify the definition make it clear that remote work counts as telework. And when you’re doing data collection, that’s really important to make sure you’ve sorted that out. So  that’s the idea. But bottom line, there’s a lot of technical dimensions to this bottom line. It’s about keeping telework strong, making sure that’s a good option for the federal workforce.

Tom Temin: And do you envision the level of telework that has been occurring as a result of the pandemic, especially in 2021, and maybe early ’22, but mostly ’20 and ’21? Could that be in your view, the norm for the federal government?

John Sarbanes: I don’t know that we’ll see the same levels of telework that, frankly, we had to engage in with the pandemic. I mean, that was a very extraordinary circumstance. I do think that the pandemic pushed a lot of agencies and workers and supervisors to a new appreciation of how you incorporate telework into the productivity of an agency. So I think you’re going to continue to see a real premium on this that has been kind of enhanced and introduced to a lot of the workforce because of the pandemic. And I’m looking forward to what that represents, again, for the productivity of these agencies. Across the board.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland. He’s co-sponsor of the Telework Metrics and Cost Savings Act. And what have you heard from constituents and not necessarily just constituents in Maryland, but the federal workforce, the federal employee unions, perhaps, and how does it contrast with what you’re hearing from supervisors and maybe even political appointees, some of which have come in and have never seen the bulk of their workforce?

 John Sarbanes: Well, first of all, you should know that the bill that we’re discussing right now has been strongly endorsed by the National Federation of Federal Employees, the Federal Managers Association, the American Federation of Government Employees. So the people who know this workforce best and understand how it can be most productive, they have leaned in hard behind this this bill, this strengthening of telework options. From my constituents who obviously depend significantly on what the federal agencies can offer to them across the board, the more sort of comprehensive the toolbox is for serving the needs of your constituents, the better for those constituents. So I think they liked the idea and benefited from the fact of more telework opportunity for the federal workforce. Look, there’s still things that your constituents need to do in person, there’s still certain kinds of meetings and interactions that have to happen face to face, and telework can’t replace that. But if telework allows the workforce to be more nimble in its response to the concerns of constituents. That helps not just boost the morale of the workforce,  it boosts the morale of the public that’s being served. So I think there’s definitely an appreciation among the public that this is an important tool to have in the toolkit of service to the broad public. In terms of the workers themselves. I mean, we have seen surveys over the last few years that demonstrate really strong support among the federal workforce for this option. They’re expressing that in the sense that they’re using this opportunity. But they also, in the surveys that are taken, kind of recommit to this as an important option. You can see among supervisors, some are more hesitant than others in terms of how they deploy this. But I think the general experience is, once you kind of push forward and embrace this as a tool, you get more comfortable with it. And you also can see how it increases the productivity of the people that are working with you. Frankly, not just those who are teleworking, but those who aren’t teleworking, the productivity across these agencies goes up when they treat telework is an important component of how to deploy their services.

Tom Temin: And one of the agencies where this all seems to be clashing somewhat in this being resolved or not resolved, I believe is in your own district, and that is the Social Security Administration. And they’ve had labor relations issues, let’s say going back to the Trump administration that haven’t really been resolved in the Biden era, and there’s still an acting director that maybe hasn’t been all that effective in settling all of those issues. What’s your sense of that as kind of a crucible for all of this social security?

John Sarbanes: Well, I mean, there have been some challenges and some of the agencies including that one, I think that just puts a fine point on why this, this new piece of legislation that we’ve introduced is so important. Because it will help to encourage –  pressure, in some instances, the agencies, all agencies, to look at how they can embrace telework, achieve that right balance for how telework is integrated into their agencies workforce and productivity. And by collecting data that reflects that, you create the right kind of positive peer pressure across agencies. So for example, I would expect to see, based on the data collection, and the reporting that we are asking for in this bill, that some agencies will be able to highlight best practices, and really convincing data about how it’s contributing to their productivity. And then agencies maybe next door who haven’t been implementing it, or embracing it at the level they could, will feel the pressure and expectation to do the same. And that’s exactly what we’re going for here. I mean, every agency is different to some extent, but there are best practices that can be uniform. And if we collect data that reflects that and then get it broadly distributed across these agencies and across the workforce and across the various supervisors and leadership, you get to a better place in terms of achieving that proper balance.

Tom Temin: Just a final question on telework. That’s a related issue that Congress and the and the bureaucracy have been laboring over for many, many years. And that’s the federal real estate, bulk footprint, whatever you want to call it. It seems like if there is a permanent increase, to the degree we’re talking about, of telework, it’s really past do reevaluating what federal space looks like.

John Sarbanes: I think that’s fair. And again, I think the information data we’ll be pulling in as a result of this legislation, if we get it passed, and it’s implemented, will help with that kind of analysis, and evaluation. I mean, the world is changing every day, we all have to keep up with that. The private sector’s keeping up with that, and we’re very conscious of that. I mean, a lot of these opportunities around telework that we’re trying to make available in the federal work space, are ones that the private sector has been embracing for years. And, frankly, if we have good telework policies and opportunities in government, we can compete better for really high quality employees that the private sector may be recruiting now, because they’ve got a lot of flexibility. But getting to the question of what’s that physical footprint of the federal government look like? Are there opportunities to downsize or resize that, for example, based on the uptake around telework? That’s definitely going to be part of the equation as we move forward. And again, I think this legislation will benefit from that analysis.

Tom Temin: And if you’ve got a couple of minutes longer, I’d like to ask you about a totally unrelated issue, and that is your bill, public service loan forgiveness program, the introduction of which was followed by a Biden administration move to overhaul that whole public service loan forgiveness program.  What’s the latest what’s going on here? What are you trying to accomplish?

John Sarbanes: What we’re trying to accomplish is to make it easier for people to choose a path of public service, in spite of having maybe significant loan debt that they’ve accrued, for purposes of their education. So over 10 years ago, I introduced the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Act, which would allow people who are pursuing public service to have reduced monthly payments on whatever their their student debt was, if it was federal consolidated student debt. And then at the end of 10 years have that forgiven completely. There have been some bumps in the road along the way. The Biden administration has taken some pretty dramatic steps recently to make sure that those student borrowers out there who qualify for this opportunity are getting the benefits of what we intended from that legislation. So there’s a lot of workers in the federal space, who are carrying student loans, and can benefit from this opportunity for loan forgiveness, after 10 years of serving in government, and are seeking to take advantage of that. The Biden administration, we’re certainly watching them carefully, I think is implemented some steps to make sure that opportunity is there and people can take full advantage of it. So it’s just another way to support those people who make the decision to go into public service, which may not be as lucrative as some other opportunities that they could have. But it represents a kind of mission-orientedness on their part, we want to support them, helping them with their student loans is one way to do that.

Tom Temin: But just to play devil’s advocate, it’s not as if public federal servants are not paid. They’re not volunteers, they do have a really good defined benefit pension plan. They have a salary and promotion schedule, they’ve got a lot of things that actually many people in the private sector don’t have. Do you expect this perhaps maybe to spark, I don’t know, a forgiveness program paid for by private sector employers? And maybe the government can get off the hook that way, instead of just by fiat for the trillion dollar overhang we’ve all got.

John Sarbanes: The federal federal workers do have a certain amount of benefits. When you add them all up, it typically does not, it still doesn’t exceed or necessarily remain competitive against what the private sector can offer somebody with the same credentials. So I think we got to be looking at different ways to incentivize people to make that choice, particularly on the front end of their career. And if they know that a significant loan burden could be alleviated by choosing to take the path of public service, in this case, working for the federal government. And those are talented, skilled people that we want to have serving the public from their position in the federal workforce, then I think we ought to offer that opportunity to them. I’ve seen it make a difference in the calculation of young people who are entering the workforce and are trying to decide “do I take this path? Or do I take a different path?” And if they’re taking the path of public service, we want to make sure that we’re supporting that, because we all will benefit from it in the long run.

Tom Temin: And of course, you mentioned 10 years ago, the original overhaul bill, now you have the what you can do for your country act. That’s just an update to the original loan forgiveness program plan?

John Sarbanes: Correct. That’s a way to go in and address some of the bottlenecks. We’ve seen some of the kinds of glitches and how the program is administered and make sure that anybody who entered public service with the expectation based on the public service loan forgiveness program, that their student debt would be forgiven after 10 years of commitment, aught to be able to benefit from that and have that expectation realized. And so this new bill is designed to make sure that that all of those pieces are in place. And that really thousands, tens of thousands of people across the country, who every year will be rolling into this opportunity can rely on it being there for them.

Tom Temin: Democratic Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland. Thanks so much for joining me.


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