Tight budgets drive feds to explore and embrace transformational collaborative solutions
Throughout government, requirements to reduce costs have been exacerbated by the sluggish economy. And new mandates from federal oversight organizations directing agencies to reduce expenses are forcing government organizations to explore all available avenues to enable greater use of collaboration as a way to lower travel, real estate and energy expenses.
In the past, tight budgets often precluded investments in solutions designed to improve collaboration. But in 2012, the pace of advances in everything from cloud computing to social media, Internet video and mobility solutions is driving public-sector organizations to seek alternatives that will cost-effectively allow more employee mobility, telework and social media-driven collaboration.
In the technology arena, collaboration solutions help employees and contractors work together on projects. Most of the technological solutions available consist of tools and services that enable or secure information sharing. These solutions encompass a broad range of hardware, software, networking and services. The primary tools used to improve collaboration include:
- IP telephony
- Unified communications
- Video communications and telepresence
- Seamless mobile collaboration
- Voice over secure IP
- Radio over IP
Realizing the Benefits
Key benefits government agencies and departments have derived from collaboration tools and services include:
- Greater cost savings — by consolidating the communications infrastructure and simplifying management. Videoconferencing solutions are used to reduce travel costs by providing an in-house conferencing option. Virtual office capabilities reduce office space needs and bolster telecommuting capabilities.
- Increased productivity — by enhancing worker accessibility through the use of more methods of communication and by allowing employees to work from nearly any location. Real-time collaboration accelerates decision-making and enhances operational agility. Training can also be more efficient. Flexible work environments and mobile work spaces allow employees to work from anywhere, at any time.
- Improved constituent satisfaction — by enabling a faster means of communication and providing a platform for private social networking. Call-center solutions are also used to improve resolution time, ease access to information and improve self-service capabilities.
Given the current economic climate and the lightning-fast pace of technological change, collaboration tools featuring video are considered “red hot” in 2012. According to current industry estimates, video accounts for more than half of all Internet traffic, up from an estimated 15 percent just a year ago. Industry observers predict that within two years, 90 percent of all Internet traffic will be video.
In government, the use of video, and especially video teleconferencing, is considered crucial as a way to reduce travel expenses and improve energy efficiency, said Josh Finke, collaboration practice director at Iron Bow Technologies.
The Department of the Interior’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, recently underscored the need for greater investment in video teleconferencing at that organization. Not surprisingly, DOI’s difficulties leveraging the technology aren’t considered unusual because strict security policies have hobbled the department’s ability to adequately take advantage of modern technology in the past.
Kendall stated in a recent memo that the department could save millions of dollars in travel expenses every year by using video teleconferencing. Until now, a variety of issues, including prior negative experiences and a lack of knowledge and/or motivation to use the available tools, have combined to prevent DOI from using its 315 video teleconferencing locations nationwide to their full potential. The department also lacks policies on the use of video teleconferencing as a viable alternative to travel and has no rule requiring equipment compatibility, according to the IG’s report.
In 2009, the department spent $42.4 million on travel. By adding or moving video teleconferencing equipment to office locations that are common departure and destination points for meetings or training, the IG report estimates the department could save as much as $22.4 million in travel expenses for trips of up to four nights and as much as $8.5 million in travel expenses for trips of two nights or less.
Creating and adopting a policy to encourage video teleconferencing as an alternative to travel would help achieve greater use of the technology, Kendall said. The report recommends that DOI craft a policy for video teleconferencing adoption, develop a framework to make the equipment compatible and interconnected departmentwide, and post information on the department’s intranet to encourage the use of the equipment.
For the most part, security policies have both positive and negative impacts on government collaboration efforts, according to industry observers. Because security policies must be comprehensive, they can slow an agency’s ability to take advantage of new and emerging technologies, such as social media. That is why agency policies must be updated continually. Because security and social media are two areas that are swiftly changing and closely aligned, social media also requires nearly continuous evaluation, with agencies updating what it is acceptable for employees to post or do on social media sites.
“The tendency now is to share too much,” Iron Bow’s Finke said. “And once information is shared or posted, it’s impossible to ‘undo’ that posting.”
Via e-mail filtering and monitoring, it’s possible to keep track of social media updates and quickly address potential security breaches while providing enough flexibility for agency employees to efficiently use social media tools, he added.
GSA Telepresence Services Available for Agency Use
The General Services Administration has launched telepresence locations at each of its 11 regional headquarters offices and four other Washington, D.C., metro area sites that federal, state and local governments can use for video teleconferences.
Currently, as many as 15 locations can be linked together for a single meeting. Federal, state and local government agencies can use the Networx contract vehicle to take advantage of GSA’s telepresence centers. Space is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
To learn more about GSA’s telepresence services or other available video teleconferencing solutions, please visit: http://www.gsa.gov/portal/category/101339.
Collaborating in the Clouds
Another hot-button issue for government organizations is cloud computing. Most federal agencies are working to comply with regulations such as the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative and its mandate requiring agencies to migrate at least three applications or services to the cloud by mid-2012. Some federal, state and local government agencies are already investing in offloading server-based office applications to cloud-based solutions, such as Google Apps. Forrester Research predicts that more collaborative cloud solutions will emerge in 2012 that will enable organizations in the public and private sectors to collaborate on information, objects and end-to-end processes. In fact, cloud collaboration is expected to be a key driver in the future, said Holger Kisker, a Forrester Research analyst.
Security, meanwhile, remains one of the biggest challenges to migrating government information resources to cloud solutions. Government data shouldn’t be accessible to anyone outside that organization, and that includes the host organization, Iron Bow’s Finke said.
Government organizations can expect to see more private cloud-based collaborative services featuring server and/or data sharing, word processing, and other general office applications in combined solutions this year. Also, looking ahead, government organizations can expect to see video and voice conferencing solutions based on a hybrid approach that mixes private and public cloud-based services to deliver fully secure voice conferencing and video teleconferencing.