At-home agents: Best practices for feds working from home

Wednesday - 7/7/2010, 3:44pm EDT

Mark Samblanet, chair of the ACT-IAC At-Home Agent Task Force

Click to hear the interview

Download mp3

Are you an 'at-home agent'?

If you are a federal employee or contractor who works exclusively from home, then the answer is yes.

And while it might be nice to work from home, there are some issues that arise that so-called regular workers don't have to deal with, especially when it comes to privacy and security.

The American Council for Technology (ACT) and Industry Advisory Council (IAC) recently wrote a white paper on the issue, after creating a taskforce on the subject.

Taskforce chair Mark Samblanet says at-home agents have been around for years, but, as technology has gotten more sophisticated, so have the issues involving their work.

"We had a number of agencies come to us and ask how they would go about setting up an at-home program. Their concerns were that they're taking information related to the general public -- name, address, sometimes Social Security number, banking information . . . and the question was -- how do we do this? That's [what we addressed] -- what are the barriers and what are the solutions?"

All sorts of different organizations in the private sector do this, and the taskforce tapped into some of those lessons learned in order to write its report.

But it's not like comparing apples to apples

Samblanet says part of the challenge has to do with the fact that federal agencies have to deal with rules and regulations, such as the Personally Identifiable Information Act and FISMA.

In addition, sometimes federal agencies are dealing with emergency situations, such as getting citizens benefits in the wake of, say, Hurricane Katrina.

Thus, the term 'security' for federal at-home agents is broader and more complex than it might be for a private company.

"In a number of cases, the at-home agent is not using a government issued computer, but is using their personal computer, and ensuring that the personal computer is set up and secure or controlled during the time in which they're handling government [information], that they have all the practices in place and all the systems in place."

Emerging technologies, such as cloud computing, are looking like good solutions to this problem, though. Simplifying the process could alleviate some managers' concerns, but there is, of course, a more personal element.

"As with any other security program, personnel security is important, as well as physical security. From a personnel point of view, the agents have to be cleared through the normal procedures, whether it be a full PIV background check or HSPD-12 -- whatever security clearances or controls they need to put in place still need to be there. Plus, a second factor is in the hiring and training of agents. The agency needs to set up a program through which they can actually interview an agent to make sure they're capable of working from home."

He says understanding that some people just don't have the, well, personalities to work from home is also key. Some people really do thrive in an office environment more so than they would from home.

One thing that agencies can do is learn from other programs -- and each other.

"One thing we found out through the process is that all these agencies we talked to had a telework program in place, yet, for some reason, when we started talking about at-home agents, they'd never connected the telework [process] to at-home agents. Telework programs have the practices and policies in place. . . . Most people think of telework as an employee with an office who's working at home part of the time or during a pandemic or an emergency. . . . They don't necessarily make the [connection] there."

Email the author of this post at dramienski@federalnewsradio.com