Skip to main content

Sawislak Speaks to the Future of COOP and Telework Conference

Remarks by
Josh Sawislak
Acting Chief Emergency Response and Recovery Officer
U.S. General Services Administration
The Future of COOP and Telework Conference
Washington, DC
August 6, 2008


Thank you Kim.

There are two only things that are more difficult than making an end of the conference speech: figuring out how to order in Starbucks and getting out of town on Friday afternoon.  So – to take advice from President Franklin Roosevelt, I will try to be sincere, be brief, and be seated.

But I am going to ask that you indulge me for a moment.  Since I mentioned FDR, I have to say something about another great leader of that time -- Winston Churchill. 

I find Churchill fascinating.  First elected to Parliament in 1900, Churchill had a long and distinguished career in government – both in peace and wartime.  But following WWI, Churchill’s star began to fade.  The 1930s were known as the wilderness years for Churchill and it wasn’t until the period leading up to World War II that people began to take more notice of his message.  With his long held opposition to the re-arming of Germany and the threat of war in Europe, he was suddenly the right man at the right time. It was then that he was able to use his remarkable oratory powers to uplift the whole British nation in its struggle against the Nazi threat. 

Much like the wartime Churchill, this is the right time and the right place for continuity and telework. Government agencies need to be increasingly agile to ensure that COOP is not treated as just an acronym – or worse yet, a “program.”  Once it becomes a “program,” it gets a staff and a budget, it becomes a “thing” all to itself.  Then we have missed the point that the national continuity policy says pretty clearly – don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  It’s really that simple.  I’m a private sector guy, and when I look at this, it’s just solid business planning – more eggs, more baskets and if you can keep some eggs at home some days that works pretty well too. 

Given that, telework seems to be a no-lose proposition. It reduces energy use; cuts down on greenhouse gases; eases traffic; reduces our dependence on foreign oil; increases worker productivity; saves taxpayer dollars; helps persuade talented individuals to build long careers in public service; and perhaps most importantly, it makes us more resilient in times of crisis. 

The General Services Administration and the Office of Personnel Management have been trying to jumpstart federal telework for more than 15 years, and participation still isn’t where it should be.

So what’s the problem?  Some people will tell you its too difficult to get managers to accept not seeing their staff every day.  Some will tell you that there are complex security and significant cost issues.  Others talk about public perception as the big problem.  I think its inertia and fear of change. 

A Brazilian architect and politician named Jaime Lerner says that things are rarely as complicated as the people who sell solutions to complexity tell you they are.  I promise that is clearer when he says it in Portuguese, but the bottom line is not to over think it.  Sometimes you just have to lead. 

So last September, GSA saw a way to further our resiliency and environmental goals and continue our efforts to make GSA an employer of choice.  The Administrator issued a “telework challenge” to the entire agency.  The goal was to lead by example and have 20 percent of all eligible GSA employees teleworking one or more days per week by the end of the year. The target jumps to 40 percent by the end of 2009, then to 50 percent in 2010. We hit the first mark nine months early and are now humming along at nearly 30 percent. At this pace, GSA will exceed 30 percent by the end of the calendar year, and be in great shape to achieve 40 percent in 2009 or maybe even meet the challenge a year early. Our hope is that other agencies will quickly follow suit.  Remember, work is something that a person does and not necessarily a place they go.  When people ask me “where do you work?,” I tell them, “wherever I am.” 

And if for no other reason, telework should be embraced because it helps us create the routine distribution of staff directed by the national continuity policy.  And its value is not just found in catastrophic disasters, but it helps us when we experience smaller emergencies such as severe weather and major civic events. 

During this conference, people have spoken a lot about resiliency; that we cannot afford to shut down the government in times of disaster. And we know the midst of an emergency is the wrong time to be on a learning curve. Technology has allowed us to rethink the workplace of the past and elevated readiness and resiliency are the beneficiaries.

Teleworking helps us ensure all our eggs are not in that one basket, but it also trains our staff to work from remote locations and ensure we will have the equipment in place to allow people to work from alternative locations. It enables us to be proactive instead of reactive, and hopefully continue in a smooth and uninterrupted fashion during an emergency.

There is a lot of academic discussion these days about a research concept called acting in time.  The basic theory is that there are some systemic reasons why government is not able to implement effective and response solutions before a crisis gets out of hand.  Chris Stone, who is one of the leaders of this research effort at the Harvard Kennedy School said, “when we look across the wide array of challenges facing governments today —from migration to pandemics, from earthquakes to terrorism — we recognize that the solutions themselves are rarely what’s missing. What’s missing is the ability of governments to act on what we know and to act in time to make a difference.”  While this research effort is new, there is one thing we can say for certain, if there is no one to act, it will certainly not be in time. 

So, this is the right time and the right place to join continuity and telework.

How many of you remember the SARS scare from a few years back? At the end of 2002, through the summer of 2003, we had an international pandemic with about 8,000 known infected cases and about 775 deaths. After China, Canada was one of the hot zones for SARS. I worked in Toronto during SARS and the good news is that the Canadians worked very hard to quarantine anyone who may have been exposed to ensure they were not infected and did not spread the disease.  Local and national health officials did a great job and as a result, actual cases of SARS in Canada were minimized.  Unfortunately, because many organizations lacked the systems and training to have employees work from home, a lot of people who were potentially exposed and thus quarantined, sat at home watching television for several weeks.  Yet, if they had been trained and equipped to telework, they could have continued to be productive. The health impacts of the pandemic were controlled in Canada, but the economic impact was significant. 

Apart from all the environmental and family friendly benefits of telework, federal agencies that have a robust telework program in place are better prepared to have employees transition to emergency work arrangements should it become a necessity.

Now I don’t want to have you all go home and tell your bosses that those guys over at GSA just announced one day everyone should telework, and that everyone leader in the agency applauded and got in line to sign their people up.  I got some very nervous looks from the C-suite.  There were concerns about security, funding, and selling this to managers.  These were very real and important concerns, but ones we could, and for the most part did, work out.  Voltaire said that the "perfect" is the enemy of the "good."  So we didn’t go searching for perfection, just a good, workable solution. 

Security is something that GSA takes very seriously.

Last year, GSA published a Federal Management Regulation Bulletin titled, “Information Technology and Telecommunications Guidelines for Federal Telework and Other Alternative Workplace Arrangement Programs.” This policy document, which integrated guidance from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Office of Management and Budget, the Government Accountability Office and GSA, was designated to help agencies identify the technology fundamentals for successful and secure telework programs.

GSA recognized the need to provide telework technology and security information in a consolidated, easy to read format that covered technology topics such as:

  • Basic equipment;
  • Telecommunications;
  • Security;
  • Privacy, and;
  • Training and support.

There is no doubt we will have to make additional I-T investments. However, GSA’s CIO, Casey Coleman, tells me that the I-T vendor community has seen this trend to a mobile workforce coming for awhile and has provided us with plenty of product choices to resolve the security, access, and management issues.

Adequate technology exists and is available to enable controlled information security in a telework environment. GSA’s remote workers are required to complete a technology implementation plan as a precondition to being authorized to telework. This includes a review of IT security requirements.

What needs to be done now is clear.  Each agency must identify the issues, do the analysis, and put solutions in place to address them.

It’s partly a question of the best and most cost-effective way of ensuring that each teleworker has the right equipment, training and data protection to do his or her job.  Even in the absence of a government issued laptop, there is a way to completely isolate the users’ home computer from the agency network.

But it’s also as important to look at who is teleworking and when.  If all of my policy people telework on Tuesdays, but only Tuesdays, then I better hope we don’t have an incident at the office on a Thursday.  The goal should be that policy objective of routine geographical distribution of capabilities.  The Office of Emergency Response and Recovery at GSA is pretty small.  We have about 10 staff today.  That includes the deputy chief who is currently deployed with his guard unit in Afghanistan (that’s not the kind of geographic dispersion I am recommending for anyone).  So how do you ensure you have dispersion with a small group?  We have taken three approaches. 

First, of course, we telework.  I and all my senior staff try to work from another location at least one day a week.  Second, we are basing some of our new staff in other locations.  Our last hire works out of Arizona, and we have targeted positions in our growth plan to place staff in the Midwest, Rocky Mountains, Southwest, West Coast, and Southeast.  Finally, at GSA we have an organizational structure that creates resiliency by placing fully-functional operational units in our 11 regional offices.  These staff are not part of the headquarters organization, but we coordinate closely with them and are working to ensure that the regions have the information, skills, and tools to take over for us if we can’t function. 

Having a well-trained and distributed workforce outside of the impact area is key. And for those inside the affected area telework will still be a valuable option.  Just because you have a fancy COOP site all laid out in Pennsylvania, doesn’t mean you can get there.  We need people to be able to plug in wherever they are and get the supplies rolling.

Last winter, with the prediction of stormy weather ahead in the New England area, our regional administrator in Boston, Dennis Smith, encouraged employees to leave the office prior to the storm and work at home for the remainder of the storm, allowing them to continue to serve their customers with minimal disruption.  Fifty-seven percent of those who were eligible got home ahead of the storm and still had time in the day to accomplish various work related activities. Their comprehensive telework program allowed employees to work remotely from home and avoid the risk of hazardous conditions on the snow and ice covered roadways.

During the inclement weather they maintained the capability to review and prepare documents, respond to e-mails and access various applications pertinent to their line of business.  They were also able to participate in conference calls and online meetings, take online training classes and collaborate with customers. With the ability to connect through a secure technological environment, those employees carried on remotely in an uninterrupted fashion as if they're sitting at their workstation in the office. 

The New England Region used the same type of telework continuity tactic in June when hundreds of thousands of fans flooded the City of Boston to celebrate the Celtic's win in the NBA finals. Sixty-two percent of the region’s employees were able to operate seamlessly and avoid the long travel delays caused by the large crowds.

So now I have convinced you that telework is a critical tool for continuity planning, let’s talk about how to do it. 

My advice is that you follow a five step process: 

  • Step 1. Like any good planning process, start with the problem.  What are your agency’s mission essential functions and what are the risks to your ability to complete them?  Everyone in the executive branch should have this underway as part of your compliance with the federal continuity directive 2.  This is where you must start any risk-based planning effort because it lays out what you need to make resilient. 
  • Step 2.  Determine the staffing and technology needs to complete these functions in the time of a crisis.  It’s not just how many people, but what skill sets, what equipment, and what data access do they need. 
  • Step 3.  Review your agency policies to ensure that they support telework.  This is important because – no kidding – you might have a policy that says “essential personal are not eligible for telework.”  You want to make sure you understand the policy framework and make it easy for staff and managers to operate in this manner.
  •  Step 4.  Lead from the top.  You want to have senior level support and accountability for this effort.  Steps 1 and 2 will allow you to make a strong business case and there are great data available on the effectiveness and productivity of teleworkers, so you should be able to sell this concept at any level in the organization. 
  • Step 5.  Train and test.  You don’t want to find out the one critical thing you missed in the middle of the real crisis.  The good news is that with telework, every day is an exercise. 

I am going to wrap up by making three points:

Point one is that continuity of operations should not be a place or program, but rather a way of looking at what you do as an organization.  It should be risk-based, so define what needs to get done, where you are vulnerable, and have the systems and people in place to mitigate the risks. 

Point two is that telework is a great tool for continuity planning and resiliency because if you use it effectively it will ensure that you have available, trained, and equipped staff available to carry on your mission during a crisis. 

Point three is that managing in telework environment requires a change to the traditional mindset.  Productivity, not attendance becomes the principal measure of a good employee.  Additionally, to be successful, managers need to break the notion of core hours – that a truly resilient office is never really closed. 

Now before you bring out the torches and pitchforks, I am not advocating that there is no place for work/life balance, just that we can redefine work as a thing, not a place. 

Thank you and I am happy to take any questions.