(Washington, DC - David Schultz, WAMU News) Numbers don't lie, but statistics often do. Take this one, for example: Around 10 percent of federal employees across the country telecommute at least once a week, according to a survey released this week by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' Transportation Planning Board.
Ten percent - sounds reasonable, right?
That number is essentially an average. And, as my college statistics professor was fond of saying, if Bill Gates walks into a bar, everyone in that bar suddenly becomes a billionaire, on average. In other words, averages can be misleading.
And that's especially true for this figure.
The Transportation Planning Board found that, if you look only at federal employees who live within the D.C. metro region, that telecommuting percentage skyrockets to 27 percent.
In other words, federal employees in the D.C. region are much more likely than their colleagues elsewhere in the country to telecommute. And given that the D.C. region has more federal employees - almost 350,000 or 12 percent of the entire federal workforce - than any other part of the country, that seems pretty significant.
So why has D.C. become a federal telecommuting mecca? There's no data on that - yet. But let's speculate:
Telecommuting has been slowly gaining steam within the federal government for a while now, as traffic congestion in the region steadily worsens. But the mega-blizzards that hit D.C. this winter, causing the government to literally shut down for almost an entire week because roads and train tracks were impassable, really drove home the importance of telecommuting to many lawmakers.
Last week, the House passed a bill sponsored by several members from D.C.'s suburbs (the District itself doesn't have a vote in Congress, remember?) requiring all federal agencies to beef up their telecommuting capabilities. A similar bill passed the Senate in May, and the two are now in conference.
Another reason why feds here have taken to teleworking may simply be the nature of their jobs. Many (though certainly not all) of D.C.'s federal employees work in desk-job environments. With enough bandwidth, they can do what they need to do from just about anywhere.
That's not necessarily the case elsewhere in the country, where federal employees are often working "in the field," so to speak. It's tough to imagine how a park ranger or a border patrol agent or an airport security screener could do their jobs from a laptop.
But perhaps someday, someone will develop a way to monitor parks via web cam. And perhaps airport screeners will someday be able to tell you to remove your shoes and throw away liquids with a click of a mouse.
Until then, expect telecommuting to keep expanding in Our Nation's Capital, and stagnating everywhere else.