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Akaka & Voinovich: How to Cut Congestion, Pollution

Transportation contributes about 28 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and as the number of vehicle miles traveled per person continues to rise, strategies that eliminate vehicle trips should be a component of our energy policy. One important way to do that is to use technology to encourage telework and reduce the American worker’s need to commute.

The term “telework” encompasses a variety of flexible work arrangements that allow employees to perform officially assigned duties from an off-site location such as their homes. The term was coined in the 1960s by a scientist who worked in Los Angeles for the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Air Force

Space Program. Advances in information and computer technology have increased the ability of employees to access information securely and work productively from just about anywhere.

According to the Telework Exchange, the U.S. work force could eliminate 130 billion driving miles, remove 120 million tons of pollutants from the air and save more than $160 billion in commuting costs by teleworking just one day a week for a year.

These are among the reasons we introduced the Telework Enhancement Act, which builds on past efforts by laying the groundwork for robust telework policies in each executive agency. Our bill, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent May 24, asks the Office of Personnel Management to work with agencies to provide guidance and consultation on telework policies and goals. Each agency would designate a telework managing officer to develop and implement telework policies and act as a resource for employees and managers on telework issues.

Our bill also prohibits discrimination against employees who choose to telework, guaranteeing that they will not be disadvantaged in performance evaluations, pay or benefits. It also holds agencies accountable by requiring the submission of telework data to the OPM, which will submit an annual report to Congress summarizing the data and the progress of each agency in achieving its telework goals.

As chairman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, we held hearings in 2007 and 2010 to explore the benefits of telework for the federal government. Witnesses testified about the many benefits, including lower vehicle emissions associated with commuting, better work-life balance, reduced overhead costs for agencies and increased trust and communication between employees and managers.

Telework also plays an important role in agencies’ emergency continuity of operations plans, allowing employees to continue working during man-made or natural disasters. The recent snowstorms in the D.C. metro area highlighted the need for federal agencies to be prepared for disruptive events and reinforced the importance of telework for productivity and agency operations.

For more than two decades, the federal government has sought to encourage telework among federal employees. Congress approved provisions in appropriations bills to enhance telework opportunities within the federal government and encouraged agencies to implement comprehensive telework programs. However, Congress has not approved an authorization bill to make all federal employees presumptively eligible to telework unless an employing agency expressly determined otherwise.

Despite the benefits of telework, many agencies still do not have strong telework programs. Too often, managers are skeptical of the benefits of telework or may not know how to supervise employees they do not see every day. It is not enough for agencies to simply have a telework plan in place. Agencies should foster a culture conducive to teleworking, which means training employees and managers on how to create telework plans and expectations, as well as putting those plans into practice.

We must make sure agencies have the tools necessary to make the federal government an employer of choice in the 21st century; enhancing telework options will further that goal. We believe our legislation will help the government continue on a path toward creating an innovative work force. It is our hope that telework is not only implemented governmentwide, but also that the federal government can serve as a best practices model for the private sector.

Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) are, respectively, the chairman and ranking member of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.

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