Federal telework debate escalates as House Republicans push for details

Leaders on the Oversight and Accountability Committee are now turning to OMB to try to get deeper details on federal telework.

Agencies are moving forward with return-to-office plans for employees, but House Republicans say they’re still not getting enough information on federal telework in the first place.

Despite holding multiple hearings on federal telework and requesting information through dozens of letters to agencies, leaders on the Oversight and Accountability committee said they remain unsatisfied with the level of detail that agencies have provided.

Now, the lawmakers are turning to a different source for more information: the Office of Management and Budget.

Oversight committee leaders are calling on OMB to share “work environment plans” from agencies, along with a host of other updates on federal telework.

As part of the return-to-office memo agencies received in April 2023, OMB collected initial work environment plans, meant to outline individual telework and in-office work policies.

“It stood to reason that in the wake of OMB publishing [the memo], agencies would be compiling the data we requested,” Oversight committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) said in a Jan. 31 letter to OMB Director Shalanda Young. “Yet, even after a protracted delay in providing any response at all, agencies generally produced very little quantitative data underpinning their telework and remote work policies.”

Along with requesting copies of the work environment plans, the lawmakers are calling on OMB to detail agencies’ timelines for return-to-office implementation; any instances where return-to-office mandates have been “impeded” by collective bargaining agreements; and any employee resistance to returning to the office.

Comer and Sessions are also seeking details on the impacts — whether positive or negative — of telework on agency performance, “to include observations down to the most granular work element possible,” the lawmakers said.

“This Congress, the Oversight committee has called on federal agencies to be transparent about the impact of expanded telework on agency performance,” Comer said in a statement to Federal News Network. “It is concerning that agencies continue to refuse to provide helpful and complete information related to both telework and plans to increase in-person work.”

The committee leaders gave OMB a Feb. 14 deadline to respond to their request for deeper information. OMB did not immediately respond to Federal News Network’s request for comment on plans to respond to the letter.

“Ultimately, the telework debate is about agency performance,” Comer and Sessions said in the letter. “The better agencies are able to measure performance, the better they can improve customer satisfaction and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently.”

Despite the ongoing push for more data, there is data currently available on federal telework. Each year, the Office of Personnel Management issues a report to Congress outlining information from agencies on federal telework. But in its latest report, OPM said some of the data they collect from agencies leaves room for improvement.

“OPM recognizes the challenges associated with accurately tracking telework behavior specifically with regard to reporting and technological limitations,” the December 2023 federal telework report said. “Agencies continue to report improvements in their tracking methodologies including reducing technological barriers and adhering to OPM-provided data standards.”

Depending on the source and the collection methods, data on federal telework looks a little different. In the telework report, OPM collects information from agency-level representatives to get levels of telework participation using administrative records. But the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which also measures telework participation, asks employees themselves how often they telework.

“As a result, there are some differences between the two data sets,” OPM said.

But OPM also emphasized the significance of federal telework, saying it is a highly effective management tool. Telework also greatly contributes to recruitment, retention and cost savings, OPM said, and has countless other benefits, while not detracting from agency performance.

“As the federal government transitions to a post-pandemic era these critical lessons will inform agencies’ assessments of organizational health and performance and decisions about work environments including telework,” OPM said. “Federal agencies will be well-positioned to harness the benefits of flexible work arrangements while balancing that time with in-person collaboration and engagement.”

But committee Republicans have expressed significant dissatisfaction with the level of detail OPM’s annual telework report provides. Last May, trying to dig deeper, the committee sent 25 letters to agency heads to directly request more details on telework.

Even that effort wasn’t satisfactory for the committee members. There was a “lack of transparency” from agencies in their responses, Sessions said. In all, 11 of the 25 agencies the committee called on for details did not provide specific numbers of teleworking employees. Sessions, who’s chairman of the Oversight committee’s subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, has organized multiple hearings to try to get details directly from agency leaders.

“Many responses were, in fact, not responsive,” Sessions said during a November hearing on federal telework. “They did not respond or severely delayed their response to this government operations request.”

During the hearings, leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Social Security Administration and the Commerce Department, among several others, all said continuing federal telework is crucial. Despite most agencies now embarking on a partial return-to-office, the leaders generally agreed that continuing federal telework will be essential to recruitment, retention and satisfaction of employees.

But members of Congress aren’t the only ones looking for data from agencies on their telework policies and return-to-office plans.

More recently, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients called on agencies to fill out a request for return-to-office information, “which will outline where you are today against your goal, your concrete plans and timing for achieving your goal, and additional implementation steps you will take,” he said in a Jan. 19 email to cabinet officials and other agency heads, obtained by Federal News Network.

“I ask that you double down on your leadership to increase in-person work, especially at a time where the service of you and your team has never been more important,” Zients said.

“[Zients] is ‘demanding proof’ of return-to-office plans and progress,” Comer and Sessions said in their latest letter to OMB. “So are we.”

Oversight staff members did not share with Federal News Network whether the committee is planning more hearings on federal telework. But with the continuous push, most recently with the letter to OMB, Comer said, “the committee is making it clear we are going to continue our efforts to obtain substantive responses.”

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