SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Over a tumultuous year for California's courts, one of the administrative office pratices that drew criticism and mockery was the practice of allowing a large number of highly paid officials to work from home, including one who worked from Switzerland. That practice is scheduled to be taken up at the Judicial Council meeting today.
The options presented by the administrative office to the council are three: ax telecommuting altogether, allow it only under special circumstances, or allow telecommuting one day per week.
Steve Jahr, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said he believes the current policy is too open-ended. "The plan was originally to address the issue at the January meeting," he said. "However, the council charge to me was broadened -- not just to suggest amendments, but to justify any telecommute policy at all."
Despite the amount of criticism from trial judges over the policy, and ridicule from practicing lawyers, a total of 86 AOC employees continue to work from home for periods between 2 and 16 days a month.
Judges bent on reform of the administrative office see the same key figures in key positions and little more than lip service towards change. They say the agency is even now steering the council's choices, in this case towards option three that would continue to allow extensive telecommuting.
"The three options provided to the council by AOC staff are obviously skewed to get option three enacted," said Judge Maryanne Gilliard. "That option gives AOC management carte blanche over telecommuting."
Gilliard who is a trial judge in Sacramento spoke for the Alliance of California Judges, a statewide group of judges that has attacked the administrative office as bloated and spendthrift.
"Management has already demonstrated a failure to oversee staff and comply with their own policies," said Gilliard. "A clear policy which just says 'no telecommuting allowed' is what is needed by a bureaucracy who when given an inch will take a mile. In this economy there is no shortage of talented well educated individuals who would be more than happy to show up to work every day."
The old telecommuting policy raised alarm bells in an investigative report last year written by a committee of California judges appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. They reported that a high number of the agency's hundreds of employee worked from home, including many senior and supervisorial staff. One case drew particular notoriety where a staff lawyer was telecommuting from Switzerland.
The year-long investigation by that committee, called the Strategic Evaluation Committee, found fault with a wide array of the administrative agency's policy and practices, including both its telecommuting policy and the practice of ignoring even that open-ended policy.
"The lack of consistent supervision created by these arrangements contributes to a perception that some AOC employees simply are not accountable," said the report.
Last year, the governing Judicial Council seemed on it way to addressing what had become a lightning rod issue, a policy that provoked ridicule from practicing lawyers who said it would be nice to work from Switzerland for a handsome public salary. But a vote on changing the telecommuting policy has been pushed back several months.
Judge Jahr, director of the administrative office since last year, said in an email that the delay was the result of a request from the council to look into possible elimination of telecommuting. "In the meantime, the council has directed that the agency comply with the existing policy," said Jahr. "And the agency is complying with it."
The written policy is to limit the number of telecommuting work days to eight work days per month -- but exceptions are made based on "office leadership discretion." A list of telecommuting employees provided by the administrative office shows that among the 86 telecommuters, two are working 12 and 16 work days per month from home, including a supervising attorney.
California is the first state to encourage its workers to telecommute, with the Legislature passing a bill that established a work-from-home program to give workers more flexibility.
By contrast, some of the most wired companies in the world such as Google and Yahoo either do not permit or sharply discourage telecommuting.
David Fleming, a retired state employee who championed a state telework pilot program ten years ago, said, "What we encourage managers to do is start thinking about the results and not where people are sitting. Stop worrying about how people dress and look and start worrying about the quality of the work."
Gil Gordon, who writes a newsletter promoting telecommuting, said, "It's about managing with your brain rather than with your eyeballs. " But, he added, some jobs are inappropriate for remote work.
"Especially in a job that faces the public it may not suitable for telecommuting, even if the majority of the work can be done remotely," he said. "The taxpayers are the customer and they have the right to feel their needs for service are being met."
Last week, Yahoo's new CEO reversed a policy that allowed employees to telecommute and said all employees need to come to work.
"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side," said CEO Marissa Mayer. "That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home."
Similarly, Google strongly discourages work from home.
"Working from the office is really important," Google CFO Patrick Pichette told the Sydney Morning Herald recently.
The ultimate concern for the trial judges who pushed for reform of the Administrative Office of the Courts is whether, after all the pressure to change its culture and practices, any fundamental change will actually take place.
"But for the year long quest by the media and Alliance of California Judges to extract information from the AOC about telecommuting, this topic would not even be on the agenda," said Gilliard. "If the council is serious about reform, they would suspend all telecommuting and direct staff to be more forthcoming and cooperative in the release of public information. After all, the AOC telecommuters and non-telecommuters are paid for with public dollars."
But Jahr says the council is "moving at a break-neck speed" to reform the agency, "especially when you consider all of the challenges presented by our budget problems. The council is very serious about its oversight duties, and I'm very cognizant of my role in carrying out its policies."
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