The GAO Report: Why Reliable Data Starts with Adaptability

gao report

By: The AINS Team

In February 2022, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) about how government agencies could improve the reliability of their telework data. The GAO report presents case studies of government agencies that had a successful telework transition and of those still facing bottlenecks due to outdated telework policies and systems.  This report outlines the growing pains of many agencies as they were forcibly propelled forward in their digital transformation efforts. Issues that existed before 2020 worsened during the pandemic, and piecemeal mitigation attempts exposed new fault lines which compounded existing problems rather than resolve them. The GAO report highlights how although IT infrastructure can empower remote processes, it is critical to seek adaptable solutions that help agencies prepare for the future workplace.

Telework in the government officially began ten years before the pandemic with the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010. Executive agencies were required to outline policies and operations for teleworking employees, alongside training and agreements to ensure that employees had the flexibility to work remotely. OPM was specifically tasked with assisting with the Act’s implementation, including measuring goals, outlining best practices, and issuing annual reports to Congress regarding progress. Most agencies took several steps to improve the accuracy of their data, such as upgrading payroll and reporting systems.

Although agencies adopted new tools to implement telework policies, these measures failed to create a holistic view of an agency’s telework posture, business processes, and data to effectively manage a remote workforce. The pandemic put these tools to the test and ultimately exacerbated the government’s incomplete approach to managing telework. With each agency seeing at least 25% of employees teleworking full or part time, agency reports and analytics, internal controls, and payroll systems were pushed to their limits. Onboarded employees needed access to virtual training. Legacy systems retiring paper still had physical dependent work and lacked the necessary electronic systems to replace them. The push to a full digital workspace was uncomfortably accelerated, and agencies continue to feel the effects nearly two years later.

Without the requisite visibility into telework data, management’s ability to make decisions about how to invest resources, plan operations, assess compliance, and manage reasonable accommodations is further obscured. Oversight time is dedicated to these day-to-day operations, and long-term planning becomes a side note, or at worst, the plans cause more problems than they solve due to incomplete data.

Many of the 24 agencies studied in the GAO report accelerated their digital transformation goals, and further implemented solutions that are more accessible in a remote world – such as web-based commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions which streamline many of the day-to-day operations and open visibility into data across the agency. And as employees started to return to work in 2021, the future of telework became the future of flexible working – offering a number of opportunities to stay remote, fleshing out policies, and most importantly, reassessing infrastructure and agency application portfolios.

In June 2021, the government released guidance in memo M-21-25 to establish re-entry plans for their workforce and to re-evaluate roles that were previously deemed unable to work remotely. By mid-July, agencies were expected to have finalized plans for reentry submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and then in November, OPM released guidance for practical resources and information to increase flexibility, a report that is meant to chart the course for robust employee engagement and operations productivity.

However, needs to craft additional plans to consistently monitor error reports, integrate payroll data, and strengthen internal controls. Failing this, their organization cannot accurately implement a system that can hold up employee operations data, such as human resources offices that oversee telework policies.

As many agencies continue their search for a digital transformation vehicle, choosing rigid systems can cause further problems down the road with each problem area becoming siloed and preventing the management oversight that remains sorely needed in a post-pandemic workforce. Especially as human capital management remains one of the most diverse operations from hire to retire, quick fixes will not help the organization realize productivity goals in the future of flexible work.

Patchwork solutions that manage only one of the OPM problem areas may provide insight into the lifecycle of error reports, but then not offer streamlined communication between teams that helps empower management. Or portions of an error report could be bounced back and forth between teams rather than having a single solution that offers user controls. Instead, agencies looking for reliable data through digital transformation should seek systems that link each of these processes to create enterprise-wide data and process visibility. Prioritizing enterprise architecture will guide agencies through all manner of working conditions and provide a growth mindset empowered by cohesive data streams.