OPM downgrades snow losses, but do estimates hold water?

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berry 1 small jpgOffice of Personnel Management Director John Berry yesterday officially downgraded the government’s estimates of its per-day losses during last month’s snowstorms. Instead of  losing $102 million per day, Berry now says the government only lost $71 million per day. But there is reason to take those calculations with a grain of salt.

Berry first threw out the $102 million daily loss estimate during a December press conference on snow closure procedures. That was a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation of the total daily payroll for all 270,000 federal employees in the Washington area, and assumed total losses in productivity.

That estimate was clearly too high. The government didn’t entirely shut down, even if the empty streets made it appear so. Emergency workers still had to show up — the National Weather Service, for example, rose to the occasion and worked around the clock. And there were some telework success stories at places like DISA and the Patent and Trademark Office.

However, quantifying the actual success of telework is much trickier.

Berry said last month 30 percent of OPM and General Services Administration employees had logged on — that’s an important caveat — to their computer networks during the snowstorm. And at a hearing yesterday, he told Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., that chief information officers at other agencies reported similar logon rates.

The blizzard Feb. 5 casts the House side of the Capitol in an eerie light/Antonie Boessenkool

The blizzard on Feb. 5 casts the House side of the Capitol in an eerie light/Antonie Boessenkool

But just because someone logged on, that doesn’t necessarily mean he was as productive as he would have been during a normal day. It might mean he checked his e-mail, logged right back off, and resumed building a snowman with his kids. And interviews I conducted with federal employees last month strongly suggested there is a deep cultural resistance to teleworking during snow days. It was viewed by some as “voluntary” and may only have occurred in pockets at agencies like the Homeland Security Department. One manager said she didn’t make her telework-ready employees do anything that week because “the government was closed — how could I make them work?” Other employees felt that nobody else was working from home, so why should they?

Berry seems to have assumed that a 30 percent logon rate automatically translates to a 30 percent reduction in government losses. But when Norton pressed him on the actual work rates, Berry acknowledged that’s tougher to tell. “These numbers are hard,” Berry said, after noting that some employees may have been able to do work without logging on to their agency’s mainframe. “I can’t give you an exact, precise [figure].”

Berry is right to stress the importance of telework, and has recently set a goal of increasing teleworkers by 50 percent by the end of fiscal 2011. He also said yesterday that federal managers need to overcome their reluctance to allowing employees to telework, and that agencies need to provide enough laptops and other technologies to allow more employees to telework.

But OPM has to do much more work to find out what worked — and what didn’t — during Snowmageddon. I suspect the government’s actual teleworking track record was spottier than OPM is letting on, and it can’t fix the problems until it knows exactly where they are. Simply assuming 30 percent of your workforce kept busy when they probably didn’t just ignores the deeper problems — and won’t do anything to assuage managers’ fears of workers slacking from home.

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  1. Telework isn’t the only thing to take into account. How about the fact that a lot of feds are on alternative work schedules and may have been off on at least one of the snow days anyway (i.e. I had Friday off). And if the government was closed, does that mean we sent contractors home? There may actually be a cost savings on the T&M contracts if so (although the contractors probably found a way to charge us anyway down the road). And what is really meant by “loss of productivity”? Did we miss major deadlines or did the work somehow still get done? For the record – I did telework, along with several of my coworkers, a full 2 days during the snow storm so that I could meet my deadline and ensure no loss in productivity.

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