Teleworking can slow bird flu, lawmakers told

In addition to a flu pandemic that could last as long as 18 months, teleworking can help the government continue operations in other emergencies, groups say

Parts of the U.S. government could shut down during a much-feared outbreak of bird flu unless it develops better telecommuting plans, two IT leaders told lawmakers Thursday.

Paul Kurtz, executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA), and Scott Kriens, chairman and chief executive officer of networking equipment vendor Juniper Networks Inc., told the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform Committee that government agencies lack plans for long-term telecommuting.

Even as world health officials worry that the ever-spreading bird flu could mutate and begin jumping from human to human, most federal agencies' telecommuting plans assume employees will be gone two or three days, Kurtz said.

In addition to a flu pandemic that could last as long as 18 months, teleworking can help the government continue operations in other emergencies, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters, Kurtz said. Although the U.S. Congress in 2000 passed a law requiring agencies to offer telework options, agencies are required to return any cost-savings achieved through teleworking back to the federal budget, Kurtz said.

"There's really no incentive at the most senior level of agencies to invest in telework," he said.

The committee hearing came on the same day that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report saying many U.S. agencies haven't developed emergency teleworking plans.

While federal agencies have increased their use of teleworking in the past two years, only nine of 23 agencies the GAO surveyed reported they had plans in place for essential workers to telecommute, GAO said. Only one agency has told its emergency team members about telework expectations during a disaster, GAO added.

Also on Thursday, a survey of U.S. government workers released by advocacy group the Telework Exchange found that 71 percent of respondents did not believe their agency was now able to continue operations during a pandemic flu outbreak. The survey included answers from 266 federal workers, and 24 percent of respondents were from the military or U.S. Department of Defense.

In recent years, Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, has called on agencies to embrace telework as a way to continue operations in an emergency.

But the U.S. government has done little to study how a flu pandemic would affect the Internet and the systems administrators who keep it running, Kurtz said. "We need to have somebody think through how we keep the information infrastructure operating," he added.

Kriens told committee members that private businesses are ahead of government agencies in embracing telework.

"Business managers realize that telework is a way to get optimal performance from their workers, allowing employees to get work done from home or the road," Kriens said in written testimony. "I find it ironic that many government managers reportedly equate telework with reduced employee work hours and lower productivity, believing in the outdated management philosophy that 'if I can’t see you, I can’t manage you.'”

Strains of deadly avian flu, often called bird flu, have been reported in flocks of domesticated and wild birds in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe since 2003. Despite fears that the one of the viruses linked to bird flu could mutate and spread among humans, there have been reports of only about 200 people contacting bird flu since 1997, and most of those people had direct contact with infected poultry, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.