Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Washington Post follows up on issues with teleworking at the US Patent Office

In a post titled Six useful findings from the patent office’s filtered telework report , the Washington Post follows up on its reporting of teleworking at the Patent Office. Note the first comment to the post

This is bizarre... you write a followup to the PTO article and still don't clarify that our work is monitored extremely closely every biweek and that everything we do is a matter of public record. If anyone has a serious question or issue with the quality of our work they can look at it.

The only issue is the question of how close an accounting of day to day, hour to hour activities is necessary for PTO management and appropriate for GS 12-14 employees who are meeting all of their production goals. Some managers want better tools to discourage end-loading or perceived shirking... Examiners, as a rule, want to be allowed to work on their own schedule (within reason).

End loading was mentioned again by the Post:

“End-loading”: Some examiners do the lion’s share of their work toward the end of the quarter, a practice known as “end-loading.” The concern is that some employees slack off until it’s time to submit their work. This may not seem like a big deal as long as the work is done. But the report noted that “it is widely believed that end-loading produces a lower quality work product and, thus, is not a desired practice.”

From a comment on Joe Mullin's discussion of the USPTO reports (Patent examiners are routinely abusing work-from-home privileges ):

As I understand things at the USPTO:

- For each Office Action an Examiner writes, he/she gets a certain number of hours to complete that work.
- The number of hours allotted is based on the technology area and Examiner tenure, to account for varying complexity and experience.
- The metric used to judge Examiners is "Counts", which can be earned in a variety of ways, with diminishing returns in some cases, but issuing an Action is the most common Count.
- If an Examiner becomes good at their job, they become efficient, and can complete an Action in less than the allotted time.
- Ideally, the efficient Examiner then moves onto the next application, earning more Counts; when he/she gets ahead of their expected Count production, they move into earning what is effectively overtime pay.
- BUT this is the Government, and somebody (*cough* Congress *cough*) has from time-to-time forbidden overtime work because they don't want to pay for it.
- So, the Examiner is presented with a choice: (1) do more work and get chastised on your employee record for trying to earn "overtime" pay (and making everyone else look bad), (2) work slowly to fill out their hours with exactly as many Counts as they are "supposed" to be producing, (3) do the work efficiently and account for time accurately, then get penalized for not working the required number of hours, or (4) do the work efficiently and just plug in the hours expected of such work, leaving yourself some free time.

The rational actor chooses to do the work efficiently, plug in the expected hours, and get free time. Is this a systemic problem? Yes, obviously. But fault lies more with agency administration and Congressional monkey-wrenches than with most individual Examiners.

If I ever worked at a place where I was chastised for making others look bad because I was good at my job, I'd quit. But, I agree with you in that the incentive (and disincentive) structure needs to be such that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. They can't simply depend on the ethics of their workforce.


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