D.C. telecenters to lose GSA funding

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The General Services Administration has decided to withdraw its support for most, if not all, of the 14 Washington D.C. telecenters.

GSA Administrator Martha Johnson said the agency will move away from supporting the telecenters 100 percent. She was unsure of the exact schedule for doing it.

GSA currently guarantees a certain number of users at the telecenters around the Washington region. It costs about $72 per person, said Bob Peck, commissioner of the Public Building Service at the GreenGov Symposium earlier this month.

GSA does not own the centers. Many are run by non-profits or universities. But Peck said a lot of their business does come from the federal government. Many centers were set up in the 1990s, and times and needs have changed, he said.

“In many ways they were a first run at this and they were also conceived at the time we were looking at the mixing bowl and saying, ‘Whoa, traffic will be monstrous over the next couple of years in the D.C. area,’ which of course it is and it continues to be,” Johnson said at the Executive Leadership Conference sponsored by IAC and ACT. “We were coming up with some notions about how to do that and there was some interest on the Hill about that, and the telecenters seemed to be a notion that was a first phase of this and therefore not really as cost-effective or used now.”

Johnson said employees are shifting behavior to be a different type of mobile worker.

Keith Segerson, managing director of The Mason Enterprise Center, a telecenter associated with George Mason University in Fairfax Va., said GSA told them it will end funding for the current telework centers by the end of March 2011.

GSA also plans to issue a request for proposal to award blanket purchase agreements to qualified telework providers with all costs of operations borne by the providers.

He said this would let telecenter providers set the daily use price, market to the agencies and invoice and operate the program under the pre-agreed terms of the BPA.

Segerson added that GSA told him they hope to have the RFP out soon with an implementation date of around April 1.

There are other issues beyond teleworking that agencies should consider as well. He pointed to the need for fixed office work space, outside of the home, for continuity of operations plans (COOP) and the need for fixed office work space, outside of the home, for co-working (working in pairs/groups) and teleconferencing.

“The other ‘outside of the home’ requirement is for ‘secure’ telework facilities,” he said. “Several agencies do not generally support teleworking from home due to security concerns and want their employees to be in a common workspace.”

Peck said at one time telework centers provided better technology than the employee could have at home. But now with widespread access to broadband service, laptops and smartphones, it doesn’t make sense to continue paying for something that isn’t being used.

In fact, Danette Campbell, the senior telework advisor for Commerce Department’s Patent and Trademark Office, said at the GreenGov Symposium that most centers do not have enough bandwidth for patent examiners to do their job, with the exception of the one in Hagerstown, Md.

The Office of Personnel Management has not published a report on telecenter usage in nearly a decade. In 2000, OPM reported that 405 people from 20 agencies used telecenters at a cost of almost $800,000.

Despite the decision to no longer support the telecenters, Johnson said GSA is more committed than ever about increasing the number of teleworkers, or as she likes to say now virtual or mobile workers.

Johnson said GSA is focusing on mobile workers as it modernizes its headquarters building in Washington. She said she has challenged the design architects to develop floor plans to fit all Washington area employees into the renovated building.

“That would mean a significant increase of people coming to one building,” she said. “This will cut our lease costs and get us all together so we could collaborate. And it does mean not everyone can be in the building. It is not built for as many people as we are talking about so it’s a little bit of a forcing function.”

Additionally, GSA’s temporary space will let them test this idea of more collaboration and more mobile working, she added.

“We are being aggressive about virtual work,” she said. “Mobile work is the secret of the future in terms of sustainability. It gets people off the roads, it cuts down geographic footprint and it does a number of things that support our zero environmental footprint goals. And it also is what is happening with the tools we have and the way people are moving around trying to be with customers.”

GSA is leading several initiatives to improve both collaboration and communication across the agency and the rest of government.

Dave McClure, GSA’s administrator for Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said his office is testing the beta version of FedSpace, a collaboration platform only for federal employees.

“We are trying to build a skeleton, scaffolding platform of capabilities and collaboration, but not build a Cadillac for all agencies to use as the only collaboration tool,” he said. “We are trying to work out is build some basic capability and if agencies want to plug their own applications in the collaboration world on top of that, then it will be a win-win for everyone.”

McClure said FedSpace should be available by early 2011 for use by the CXO communities, such as chief information officers, chief financial officers and any other communities who want to come together securely online. The end goal is to speed up collaboration.

Employees can log onto FedSpace using their secure identity cards under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12, or their Office of Management and Budget MAX system password.

“We set it up that way so we can discuss policies, sensitive areas that are not for prime coverage by the press, and to also exchange information securely,” McClure said. “It’s not for national security documents, but it’s build for sensitive information that can be passed back and forth in a very seamless and protected manner. I think solving those problems will help the take up rate and use of this and actually enhance it over the fear factor.”

McClure added that agencies can share documents without being overly concerned about violating any policies. He said the tool will grow and change as people use it and realize their needs.

GSA also is implementing teleprescence technology around the country. It awarded AT&T an $18 million task order through the Networx contract to deploy Managed Network Service (MNS) Telepresence at 15 locations, including the 11 regional headquarters and 4 Washington-area locations.

Johnson said the services will be available for use by employees from GSA and other federal agencies.

“They are sophisticated systems that sit in a room so it is very much a merger of our technology work and our buildings work,” Johnson said. “You create a room and it is set up with specific and carefully orchestrated technology so that people appear much more lifelike, they engage in eye contact with each other, the sound really works and it feels like you are really sitting at the same table even though you’re sitting virtually.”

She said GSA wants to understand what the technology will do to employee work patterns and how much they can use it instead of flying across the country for meetings.

“What we like about is it is a service you can set it up, schedule it and it should be open for other agencies to use,” Johnson said. “We really want to show it off so people will begin to get excited about it and figure out how they can change their behavior.”

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