Videoconferencing slow to gain ground in government

Despite the potential to realize billions of dollars annually in productivity savings and reduced travel expenses, federal agencies are dragging their heels on adopting teleconferencing as an alternative to traditional meetings.

President Barack Obama in November 2011 directed agencies to create plans for alternatives to government travel, including the use of videoconferencing. But despite his executive order, agencies are reluctant to fully embrace the technology and many federal employees still favor meetings in-person or over the phone, according to the “Fly Me to Your Room: Government Video Conferencing Collaboration Report," which the Telework Exchange released on Sept. 24. 

The organization, on behalf of Blue Jeans Network, polled 128 federal government employees to examine how videoconferencing is used and what prevents its broader implementation. According to the report, videoconferencing can save feds 3.5 hours weekly in productivity, which translates to $8 billion in yearly productivity savings if just 50 percent of feds used videoconferencing. Greater videoconferencing would also cut agency travel budgets by a third, which amounts to roughly $4.95 billion in savings.

Despite the potential savings, the report revealed just 36 percent of federal employees use videoconferencing. In contrast, 90 percent at least monthly speak to colleagues outside of their office via phone, and 95 percent use email to communicate at least monthly.

Most feds who didn’t think their agency is taking full advantage of videoconferencing said the lack of available tools (53 percent) and network/bandwidth limitations (46 percent) are the biggest obstacles to adoption.

Culture challenges (40 percent) ranked high on the list of hurdles as well. A January 2012 inspector general report highlighted how both employee and managerial attitudes matter when it comes to adoption. Low motivation for using videoconferencing was cited as one of Interior Department’s obstacles to fully realize the benefits of videoconferencing. The Agriculture Department, on the other hand, put videoconferencing to use and successfully slashed travel spending by $47 million.

“Since the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, we have seen an incredible change in how government is working together remotely,” Cindy Auten, general manager at Telework Exchange, said in a statement. “We are riding the wave of mobility and must arm federal workers with the right tools to get the job done in the best way possible. Collaboration tools, like videoconferencing, allow coworkers to come together visually but without lengthy travel, or large amounts of time away from one’s work station. It best enables cooperation and teamwork in these mobile times.”

However, the act didn’t include funding, and while many feds are eager to embrace the new technology, they simply don’t have access to it, said Kate Lister, president at Global Workplace Analytics.

“Others have it, but have never been trained in how to use it,” she said. “I know, because I've tried to video/teleconference with many of them. Some don't have access. Others don't know how to use it. And still others have problems getting past the firewall issues. Oftentimes, we'll resort to using their home or personal devices to make things work. That's just nuts.”

The survey found nearly 85 percent think their agency’s use of the technology will grow over the next five years. Reduced travel budget savings was mentioned as a key driver, perhaps not a surprise considering how a string of conferences within the past few years were deemed wasteful.

But ultimately, it comes down to agencies receiving the funding they need to advance their use of technology, Lister said.

“Without it, their hands are simply tied,” she said. “I actually sat behind a GS-14 in a conference and watched him spend more than an hour building one PowerPoint slide. His computer was so slow, he'd type a word, then wait several minutes before the screen updated.”

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Reader comments

Wed, Sep 26, 2012

Video conferencing should be independent of device, operating system, browser and hardware. It should work across all sorts, types and sizes in order to give the government the most flexibility in order to appeal to today's all volunteer digital natives.

Tue, Sep 25, 2012

The problem I have seen with VTC is that it is used when it shouldn't, and not when it should: I have attended VTC meetings with peers spread around the Air Force, and the process of getting anything done was limited because there was no way of recessing periodically, and discussing items in smaller groups one-on-one before making proposals for consideration by the whole group. Conversely, I have wasted countless time and TDY funding attending lectures that certain could have been easily televised, with any necessary Q&A either done at the end or by private email.

Tue, Sep 25, 2012 Mr. L.C. Keeton Fort Leonard Wood, MO

In regards to some of the excuses being made about why one can't save money by using DCO Connect, I say that is ridiculous. Bottom line is people need to stop making excuses and start executing a less wasteful way of doing business. As far as the definition goes, it's not video conferencing per say, although it does have webcam capabilities (like skyping), but a web based Adobe program which runs well with Microsoft applications. The webcam ability is o.k. but you would be taking bandwidth with you so it's better left with voice and PP presentation or uploaded video. As far as learning how to use this simple program, if you go to this website and follow the instructions, (there are video tutorials), within 30 minutes it will be as if you knew this program all along. https://www.dco.dod.mil. The only excuse for not curbing TDY is the fact that people won't make any money or they won't get to travel. People obtain jobs by learning how to do them. If they want to keep them, they should learn DCO. Too many excuses.

Tue, Sep 25, 2012

The biggest handicap in the DOD/Intel world is classified connectivity for VTCs. Some agencies have networks but there is no approved classified network VTC connections for contractors. It is typically handled on a project by project basis.The old ISDN VTC connections are obsolete and slow. Establishing need to know and clearances are also difficult.

Tue, Sep 25, 2012

My project team uses videoconferencing for almost all of our meetings since we are spread throughout the United States. It saves travel time and paper since we don't have to print things out and can share documents and video at the same time.

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