May 05 2010

COOP + Mobile Needs = Telework Warming Trend

In federal IT circles, there’s still a lot of talk about foul weather, even as temperatures edge pleasantly upward. Attend any gathering of federal IT officials and you will hear references to the Snow-pocalypse, Snow-mageddon and Snow-gate.

The four-day shuttering of the federal government by Mother Nature this February, which followed snow-beleaguered commutes earlier in the winter, has fueled serious discussion on the importance of workforce mobility.

A primary reason that the cold discussion has remained a hot topic is money. Initial estimates tagged the cost for each day the government didn’t open fully for business this past winter at $100 million. But that figure apparently came in a little high. In the past few weeks, Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry revealed that the daily cost of the shutdown was actually closer to $70 million. What was the source of that recalculation? Telework.

Berry has touted the $30 million reduction in the daily tally as proof of the dollars-and-sense practicality of teleworking. He also has noted that about one-third of workers at his agency and the General Services Administration logged on to their computers remotely during the near-weeklong shutdown.

Yearly rent OPM reports it will save by closing a call center in Pittsburgh now that its 25-plus employees all telework full time

“With proper equipment and appropriate emergency planning, we need only to declare a ‘mobile workday,’ and the federal government can seamlessly conduct business as usual,” Berry told House lawmakers at a hearing in March.

To jump-start efforts to make a mobile workday feasible, he has set 2011 as a target for doubling how many federal employees regularly telework. Current estimates set the number at around 5 percent to 6 percent of government workers, but a straw polling by OPM suggests the figure might already be double that for offices in the National Capital Region.

A Road Test

With 40-plus international dignitaries in Washington last month for the Nuclear Security Summit, OPM put this knowledge to work and directed agencies to encourage telework during the summit given the numerous road closures and changes in transit service. The result: minimal gridlock despite police– and Secret Service–escorted motorcades navigating the heart of the capital over a 72-hour period.

Interestingly, the tide seems to be turning not just on telework as a smart continuity of operations strategy, but also on mobile devices and their place in the enterprise. Recently at the annual FOSE trade show, Internal Revenue Service Chief Information Security Officer David Stender noted that he now encourages his agency’s employees to tell him what type of device they want to use, and his team will figure out how to secure it within the enterprise.

“That’s a big stretch” for government, Stender acknowledges, but it’s necessary because technology evolution is on a path toward smaller and more mobile devices, such as 3G and 4G smartphones, as productivity enhancers. And he does not think that his agency will be an outlier. “We’re the IRS, we’re as bureaucratic as they come, and we’re trying to do this.”

A paradigm shift appears to be afoot. But is your agency ready for it?

Most agencies’ COOP strategies already rely on telework in some facet, and most agencies are embracing mobile computing devices to varying degrees. Yet, it’s a leap of faith to expect these practices to withstand a major governmentwide catastrophe given that the vast majority of government employees don’t telework regularly.

Beyond the end-user equipment, remote-access and network capacity issues, there’s the learning curve to address. Just because an employee uses a computer every day at the office does not mean he or she could transition at a moment’s notice and be able to navigate a virtual private network connection to tap applications necessary for maintaining an agency’s mission.

Navy CIO Robert Carey fathoms that. In his shop, the IT team has begun investigating mobile video conferencing, high-definition monitors, high-end VPNs and other tools that can help bridge the gap in providing office-like remote access to applications and Navy services. “We’re beginning to tackle that so productivity can at least come up to a moderate level,” he says. “Because while it was only snow this last time, I don’t believe it will be just snow next time.”

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