Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who chairs the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s Government Operations and Federal Workforce Subcommittee, took to task Federal agencies with notable service backlogs – and the pandemic-era workplace norms that he says contributed to them – during a subcommittee hearing on June 21.

Subcommittee members questioned officials from the Social Security Administration (SSA), the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), and the Department of State on service backlogs at their agencies, and how the coronavirus pandemic contributed to those. Agency officials responded with progress on how they are reducing backlogs now that the pandemic has waned.

Rena Bitter, assistant sectary for consular affairs at the State Department, talked about passport backlogs at the agency, and how dramatic decreases in travel hurt funding for the agency’s passport operations.

“When the pandemic hit, international travel ground to a halt,” she said. “It took our passport and visa services and our fees with it. We saw an immediate drop in revenue by 50 percent.”

To help tame the backlog, “we’ve increased our staff by 10 percent in the last year with another 10 percent in the pipeline overseas,” Bitter said. “We anticipate most positions will be back and filled by the end of this fiscal year,” she said.

Also on the hot seat at the hearing was the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which is still trying to reduce a backlog of military service record requests.

Due to the pandemic the backlog reached a “count of unanswered requests for military records [of] 604,000,” said Scott Levins, director at NARA’s National Personnel Records Center (NPRC).

“Despite the increase in demand, we have a plan in place to eliminate the entire backlog by December of this calendar year,” Levins said.

Rep. Sessions placed blame on the Federal government’s pandemic-era workplace policies – and their continuation in some measures currently – for poor Federal agency operations that include the creation of service backlogs.

“The federal government needs to get back to work,” the subcommittee chairman declared.

“The work rules and regulations that have been in place the past few years are old and do not meet today’s marketplace standards,” he said. “If they’re going to take an honest day’s pay, they should work an honest day within the work structure that is best for the American people.”

In his opening statement at the hearing, Rep. Sessions talked about a distinction between telework policies that Republicans have decried, and creating continuity of government operations that would serve citizens better in future emergencies.

“That is, if COVID 2.0 hit next year, will we just have a repeat of what happened before,” the chairman asked. “Those processes that required in-person work were obviously the ones that proved most fragile during COVID.”

“This is not the same as the telework debate – and Republicans’ concerns with an unchecked move toward ever-increasing telework among the federal employees,” he continued.

“To be clear, what we want to know, and what the legislation the House passed in January requires, is that agency performance has not and will not suffer from a large-scale, permanent shift to remote work,” Rep. Sessions said, referring to the House’s approval of the SHOW UP Act. That bill would roll back Federal agency telework policies to their year-end 2019 levels, and require agencies to justify any future changes in telework policies through reporting to Congress.

“But that is different from continuity of operations – of dealing with a situation when remote work is required,” Rep. Sessions said this week. “In looking at the three agencies here today, the National Personnel Records Center, the State Department’s Consular Affairs Bureau, and the Social Security Administration, it seems that while the situations are different, there are common themes.”

“Manpower is the key ingredient in dealing with the lingering backlogs and service disruptions,” he said, while adding that “adopting and improving technology is the key ingredient for improving service generally and preparing for future emergencies.

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Jose Rascon
Jose Rascon
Jose Rascon is a MeriTalk Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.