Report from the field: Peace Corps leads the way

It has become commonplace to talk of paradigm shifts in information technology, but for the Peace Corps, the phrase really does apply.

It has become commonplace to talk of paradigm shifts in information technology, but for the Peace Corps, the phrase really does apply. Since it awarded a seat management contract in April 2000, the organization has moved from an environment in which IT was a relatively casual concern to one in which planning and structure are the norms. The shift has paid off. Getting a problem fixed — the yardstick by which any end user rates success — now takes only a fifth of the time it took before.

"In contrast to what went before, there's no doubt [that] the seat paradigm is far better," said John Hope, the Peace Corps' chief resource officer.

The key to the organization's implementation of seat management — widely considered one of the smoothest yet in the federal space — was extensive planning, which began even before a task order was awarded.

Knowing they would be moving from an Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh environment to one that uses Intel Corp.-based machines and a Microsoft Corp. Windows operating system, Peace Corps officials migrated their Macintosh-based e-mail system to Microsoft Exchange and upgraded to a newer version of Microsoft Office. That simplified user training and saved time converting mail files during the transition, Hope said.

Peace Corps officials also made a point of touring other agencies to gauge their experiences with seat management. As a result, Peace Corps officials wrote an early draft of the task order, to be awarded under the General Services Administration's Seat Management contract, and asked for comments from potential vendors. Together with feedback from vendors who visited the organization, the draft "allowed us to write a much tighter final task order than many other agencies had previously been able to do," Hope said.

But perhaps the most valuable effort was what Hope called "early and often" communication with end users. Well before the transition to seat management began, Peace Corps officials designated specific people as points of contact in various areas within the organization and, through weekly and monthly meetings, made sure they were kept informed about what to expect from the program.

That approach is not what usually happens at government agencies, said Chet Knights, program manager for the Peace Corps' task order at Federal Data Corp., the winner of the seat management competition.

"They did a good job of assessing each of their organizations' needs through those points of contact, and that led to an actual list of requirements rather than the wish list that agencies usually put out," he said. "For us, that makes the discovery period after the award of the task order much less prone to misunderstandings about what an agency says it needs and what they actually need."

And that in turn leads to less of a gap between projected and actual costs, he said. The Peace Corps ended up adding server seats, Knights said, but that was because officials decided they wanted them after the task order was awarded, not because the task order itself was deficient in some way.

That kind of early analysis and buy-in from users is essential to setting the service-level agreements that are at the heart of any seat management program, said Christopher Ambrose, research director at Gartner Group Inc.

Without a precise understanding of the equipment that will be supplied, and what kind of services users can expect from the vendor, the result can be a substantial difference between expectations and reality. And that's the basis for much of the disenchantment in most poorly received programs.

Taking Stock

All that doesn't mean the Peace Corps' implementation was entirely free of headaches.

In particular, according to Knights, the organization's aggressive schedule — it awarded the task order in April 2000 and required the program to be up and running by the following August — exacted a toll. For example, he said, converting data files from Macintosh to Windows NT was "definitely a resource hog" that required three shifts a day and many sleepless nights to accomplish.

It was eventually completed satisfactorily, Knights said, "but it required us to have to come back in and fix stuff. Both sides pushed things that could have been done better."

Peace Corps officials did not do a good job of estimating the size of the data files that had to be translated, said Doug Warnecke, the organization's deputy director of management. But even that negative will probably turn into a positive, he said, because the whole issue of data management at the organization is now being scrutinized. Perhaps not everything needs to be saved, as it was before, and under seat management, the organization "can take a more active role in managing that," he said.

The organization is taking a five-point approach to evaluating the progress of its seat management program. Regular assessments will be made according to workstation availability (for priority and standard users), network availability (uptime), response time for network and work- station problems, customer service (both in person and over the phone), and the waiting time for access to network services. The last measure counts for half of the total evaluation score.

But it is an ongoing process, Hope said, and what's in place now may not be there in the future. The organization will continue to re-evaluate service levels, for example, and revise them as necessary. At some point, the Peace Corps will poll users to see how satisfied they are with the program. Officials will also conduct another total-cost-of-ownership study some 12 to 18 months down the road.

However, Hope thinks the Peace Corps is doing quite well with seat management and that the worst is probably behind them. The activity of the past six months took the organization through the first hectic "bubble," he believes, "and things should get simpler as we go along."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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