PTO's telework troubles open new pothole in feds' road to success

Wednesday - 8/13/2014, 4:51am EDT

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The Patent and Trademark Office's model telework program was shattered earlier this week with a negative report on employee abuses of the system.

PTO's challenges demonstrate the need for the government to modernize its rules defining what it means to perform work. It also raises another potentially big roadblock that could stymie the growing use of telework.

"I think the complaints that came were basically raising concerns about a shift at PTO, and I think it probably does apply more generally to telework, where there is a shift from the emphasis of working 80 hours in a two-week pay period to doing 80 hours worth of work during that two-week pay period," said Todd Zinser, the Commerce Department's inspector general, in an interview with Federal News Radio. "As a result, you have PTO supervisors raising concerns, because they felt the current practice at PTO for accounting for patent examiners' time weren't exactly consistent with the regulations and practices they've been accustomed to throughout their careers. So I think that is kind of the friction or tension that exists in several of the telework polices. It's an issue PTO definitely has to address."

Zinser said PTO sets specific goals for patent examiners to complete a certain number of products during their 80-hour work week or 8-hour day. So if the patent office sets a standard of, say 10 application reviews per 80-hour work week, and an employee finishes in 60 hours, then what are they doing for the other 20 hours? The employee may be committing time card fraud by telling the agency they worked 80 hours.

That's why Zinser said PTO's challenges around defining 80 hours worth of work versus working 80 hours in two weeks is something that every agency faces.

This came to light in a Washington Post story centering on a draft and final report stemming from four hotline complaints to the Commerce inspector general. A team of PTO managers conducted an audit, issuing a draft report in February and a final one in July.

Model program under scrutiny

The draft talks about time and attendance abuses, where workers say they spent 80 hours over two weeks working when, in reality, they may not have, and are putting all their completed work into the system toward the end of their pay period or performance period.

The final report is toned down and talks about challenges around better management guidance on filling out and overseeing time and attendance records and several other less hot-button issues.

"Like any responsible organization in the proper course of business, the USPTO prepares rough drafts, for discussion purposes, of proposed reports and memos. As such, in the normal, thorough process of preparing its response to this and all OIG requests, the agency created rough draft reports for consideration and discussion before reaching a final, signed version of the report," said PTO chief communications officer Todd Elmer in a statement. "The February 2013 rough draft of the report was an initial attempt to describe the full investigation record. As part of standard protocol, the USPTO's Office of the General Counsel and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer jointly reviewed the draft document and concluded that it was incomplete, inaccurate, and that it reflected only a partial characterization of the entirety of the full record. Additionally, both the Office of the General Counsel and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer considered many of the conclusions reached in the draft report to be partial and unsupported by the facts and record of the investigation and thus counseled that the final, signed, draft of the report contain a more accurate, complete reflection of the entirety of the investigation's record of interviews and supporting data, which it ultimately did."

He added PTO's telework and hoteling programs deliver clear and tangible benefits, despite whistleblower concerns and findings in the audit.

Still, the report is concerning to one influential member of Congress.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies subcommittee, wrote a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker asking for any individuals committing fraud to be referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.

"I am also referring this report to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and will ask Chairman [Hal] Rogers (R-Ken.) to consider an investigation by the Appropriations Surveys and Investigations subcommittee to ensure that all resources of the committee are being used to address this matter," Wolf wrote. "What has happened at USPTO is symptomatic of an agency that has not had leadership for the last 18 months when the last confirmed director left. Because it continues to lack a permanent director, I am asking you to take immediate action to address this matter and to report to the Congress on the steps that have been taken to ensure that this abuse does not occur again."