Have IT your way

Outsourcing helps agencies run like businesses. But is it working?

When seat management first cropped up in government circles a few years ago, some people thought it could be the answer to many of the public sector's information technology problems. Outsourcing IT and treating it like a service — in this case, the management of desktop computers — seemed an obvious solution that would leave agencies the time and space to focus on their core missions. Expectations are a lot more guarded now.

"That's a fair characterization," said Christopher Ambrose, research director at Gartner Group Inc. "On the vendor side, there was certainly an anticipation that [government] organizations would opt for the fully integrated, outsourced route, and that just hasn't happened."

A big part of the problem is that agencies at first don't realize what a major cultural change seat management requires. And once it hits them that they will be handing over responsibility for all of their IT to an outside vendor, paranoia about losing control can set in.

"It's not a trivial concern," said Christopher Wren, director for special projects and new development at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service. "It's a major change from previous ways of doing things, from the point of view of acquiring tools and support and for the reporting requirements that are needed. It takes a lot of thought and planning about where and when to apply it."

The good news, Wren said, is that the awareness of the pros and cons of seat management is much better now than it was two years ago.

Contracts such as the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA and GSA's own governmentwide Seat Management service contract, both awarded in mid-1998, have been around long enough for potential federal customers to gauge their worth. GSA recently went a step further in reaching a wider set of users by making seat management solutions available through its multiple-award schedules.

And a number of agencies have put significant programs in place, providing others with an opportunity to gauge how, or if, seat management might apply to their own needs. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was one of the first to adopt seat management in 1997, and since then, agencies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, GSA, the Treasury Department and the Peace Corps have begun to implement seat management.

The $6.9 billion Navy Marine Corps Intranet project, begun late last year and due to be completed in 2003, is expected to influence decisions about seat management in many other Defense Department and civilian agencies. The Navy will outsource its voice, video and data infrastructure via NMCI.

It's obvious to most people that seat management will end up being only a part of the mix of IT solutions available to agencies, Wren said. That mix will include the opportunity for agencies to continue buying and managing their own IT. But he believes seat management is no longer viewed with the same skepticism and that, as knowledge of its intricacies and potential grows, it will become much more widely used.

NEXT STORY: NASA extends services pact

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