Vendors pitch software to take over routine tasks

Automation lets computers keep the lights on so employees can focus on their work

The tightening of federal budgets is good news for some software developers that specialize in products that cut the time employees spend doing routine, repetitive administrative work. The companies argue that they can help agencies spend less money and gain more time to focus on their core missions.

Opsware is one such company. In a typical case, it projected that its software can save an agency more than $12 million over five years.

Automation technology can reduce the amount of time employees spend on troubleshooting by 88 percent, said John Menkart, director of government sales at Opsware. That figure is based on the company’s customer data, he said.

As alluring as the pitch may be, however, it obscures some realities, said Tricia Davis-Muffett, vice president of marketing at the consulting firm Robbins-Gioia.

The software can save an agency money, but “the real issues are with processes,” she said. “Automation software solves some problems but doesn’t solve all problems.” A bad process will end up as an automated bad process.

On the other hand, with good processes, automation software will bring the agency a return on investment, sometimes a sizeable one, Davis-Muffett said. It can reduce the amount of resources dedicated to tasks that keep the lights on, freeing more money for mission-centric work, she said.

Maury Blackman, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the automation software company Accela, said two trends are pushing automation software: agencies’ tightening of budgets and citizens’ expectations of government.

Companies such as FedEx and Amazon.com enable customers to track packages throughout their shipping cycles. Blackman said citizens expect the government to do the same. They don’t want to stand in line to get a building permit or a license. Accela’s software allows agencies’ employees to spend less time on permitting, inspections, code enforcement and other tasks by automating them. Depending on their needs, agencies could reduce the number of employees or provide employees with more rewarding work.

Pat Devine, a branch chief in the State Department’s Office of Enterprise Network Management and an Opsware customer, called the software excellent insurance. “You do need a management tool that is agnostic, as far as a vendor is concerned,” Devine said. Opsware accomplishes that by being compatible with other vendors’ technology.

Chief information officers already use automation software to gain efficiencies and assist in configuration management of operating systems and in other areas, an Office of Management and Budget official said. But the software’s benefits will be explored fully during the analysis of the Information Technology Infrastructure Line of Business that President Bush introduced in his fiscal 2007 budget proposal.

At a conference in March, an agency employee asked Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator of e-government and IT, how an agency can survive with a tightened budget and accomplish more work. Evans said agencies will have to adapt and reallocate funds. OMB wants efficiency and good performance from agencies.

Automation software may be one way to reach those goals. “With the tightening of budgets, it’s the only way to proceed and be viable and manage assets,” Menkart said.


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IT automation could get line-of-business boost

The Information Technology Infrastructure Line of Business could further sweeten the market for companies like Opsware that make process automation software. The lines-of-business initiatives seek to find common solutions across various government organizations.

Optimizing IT infrastructures is one such effort. Introduced in President Bush’s fiscal 2007 budget proposal, the initiative would define common performance measures for service levels and costs and identify best practices. It would also develop guidance for technology transitions, such as the mandated move to IPv6.

The Office of Management and Budget has been seeking comments on the IT infrastructure initiative and a new Geospatial Line of Business. The agency recently issued requests for information and held “practitioners days” for government and industry regarding both initiatives.

— Matthew Weigelt

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