By moving to more Web-based computing, managers are reinventing the way many federal agencies operate.
Cloud computing has the power to break down office walls by allowing teleworkers to be just as productive as their office-bound peers, advocates say. Others predict it will break the tyranny of the email inbox, replacing it with more collaborative communications and tear down procurement barriers that have kept federal technology stuck behind the private sector.
At least that's the sunny vision painted by proponents of cloud computing, which essentially trades in the old model of computing as a commodity, where data and applications typically are stored on-site in a chilly basement, for a software-as-a-service model, where data and applications are kept in remotely managed computer banks. Cloud-based software and services are provided over the Internet and agencies pay only for what they need, much as they do for utilities like electricity and water. By centralizing computing and data storage for a dispersed workforce, managers also can more easily update and patch software and secure information more efficiently.
The cloud is a disruptive technology in both senses of the term, though. On one hand, it near-perfectly exemplifies 1990s Harvard Business School jargon as a game-changing innovation that singlehandedly redefines its own market. Cloud's effect on telework alone is likely to fundamentally change the way government business gets done.
On the other hand, with employees' emails, chat messages, calendar invites, texts, Facebook and Twitter feeds popping up on laptops, smartphones and tablets, productivity can get lost along the way.
There are also at least half a dozen "what ifs" that could turn what are meant to be new efficiencies into liabilities. For example, what if the options for communicating and exchanging information proliferate so much that figuring out how to get something into a colleague's hands ends up taking more time rather than less?
Or what if technologists can't reform the acquisition process and government agencies simply replace one set of overly complicated in-house systems that don't speak to each other with a similarly complicated and diverse set of cloud-based systems?
There's a human element too. Pre-existing problems with the way federal agencies process work, manage programs or talk to the public are just as likely to be magnified by new technology as fixed by it.
"I think the cloud is pretty bloody important," says Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Digital Business and a former Washington Post reporter and technology columnist. "But I think no matter how great the potential of a technology is, people's behavior and institutional norms matter more. The cloud is more of an enabler for certain kinds of institutional changes
than a driver of them."
Computer clouds essentially are huge collections of hyperefficient servers managed by companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Verizon or, in the case of internal government clouds for especially sensitive data, by the Defense or Homeland Security departments.
Storing data and systems in computer clouds is a little like closing down your backyard well to plug into a municipal water system. The old well was simple, reliable and got the job done, but it had its limitations too. For starters, you could get water only from one place, and you had to maintain the entire well no matter how much or little water you used.
Once you plug into the city system, however, all that maintenance becomes someone else's problem and you pay only for the water you drink. You also can get the same water anywhere in town rather than just in your backyard. And because the city manages the water for everyone, it can operate with much greater efficiency and at a lower price point than any of the individual well owners.
Similarly, agency executives expect to save about 6 percent, or $5 billion, of the government's $80 billion annual IT budget by outsourcing data storage to corporate and government-owned computer clouds. In addition they expect to drastically ramp up federal efficiency through new and nimble cloud-based systems.
Part of that improved efficiency will come from accessibility. The cloud's signature selling point, after all, is that it doesn't live in your office, so there's no reason why accessing it from your office computer should be any better than from any other computer--or tablet or smartphone, for that matter.
In other words, a federal worker at home caring for a sick child or stuck in an airport will be able to pull up a virtual desktop with all his applications and work as he would in the office, but from a home computer, a portable tablet or even an airport kiosk computer, says Cindy Auten, general manager of Telework Exchange, an industry advocacy group.
Just as important, she says, whole government divisions will be able to continue to operate if their physical buildings are shut down because of a gas leak or if roads to the office are snowed in as they were during Washington's 2010 "snowpocalypse."
Yet experts say an even larger share of the new efficiencies will come from innovations that use the cloud's economies of scale to pack large amounts of data in nimble and accessible forms and deploy it in smart ways that cut down on busy work and ramp up worker productivity.
Early versions of this already are apparent in cloud-based email systems that the General Services Administration, Agriculture Department and numerous other agencies have adopted.
GSA is using Google Apps for Government, essentially a more secure and managed version of the search giant's consumer Gmail system with all its linked programs such as Google Docs and Google Sites for rudimentary website design.
In the first few months after the Google rollout, some employees started writing collaborative documents in real time using Google Docs rather than emailing document drafts back and forth, GSA Chief Information Officer Casey Coleman says. Others started storing their own documents as Google Docs so they could access them from their home computers and smartphones, and some GSA divisions and project teams started building Google Sites where they could post and share important project information rather than each keeping their own drafts or notes, she says.
"There were a lot of people who thought they were just getting a new email system and when they turned it on they found out it was really Christmas," says Peter Gallagher, a partner in the Civilian Federal Systems Group at the IT vendor Unisys, which managed GSA's email transition.
There can be a downside to all that connectedness, says Marshall Van Alstyne, a Boston University professor of information economics, especially if agencies don't adopt new technologies in a planned and structured way.
Van Alstyne likes to cite a 2005 study conducted for Hewlett-Packard by the King's College London Institute of
Psychiatry. It found regular work interruptions to read or respond to new emails cut the average person's IQ by about 10 points. That's about the same as losing a full night's sleep and more than double the IQ loss caused by regularly smoking marijuana, according to separate studies, although King's College researcher Dr. Glenn Wilson noted the IQ loss from what he calls "infomania" is likely more fleeting than from pot smoking or insomnia.
As email pings are joined by chat messages, buzzing phones and social network alerts, Van Alstyne says, agencies should focus on creating an "optimal level of multitasking" rather than letting everything fly at once.
To begin with, that means not overwhelming employees with a dozen new gadgets at the same time. When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved to Google email, for example, technology leaders waited to turn on many of the add-ons while employees got used to the basic email and calendar functions.
Optimal multitasking also means setting aside time each day when employees can "just focus and do real honest-to-goodness problem solving," Van Alstyne says. On the flip side, federal agencies and divisions should ensure there are certain times when people are available online, on their phones and in every other form.
"It's sort of like digital office hours," he says. "There need to be times when the digital door is open and times when it's closed."
Teleworking in the Cloud
The federal transition to large-scale telework also will require careful planning and a new approach to how workers, managers and technology interact, Telework Exchange's Auten says. That transition was largely enabled by cloud-based communication technology and spurred by the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act.
To begin with, Auten says, all members of an agency or division must be comfortable with the same set of communication tools once they're turned on. That way, she says, teleworkers won't waste time fumbling for a way to contact someone back at the office or vice versa, and a person who doesn't usually telework won't be at loose ends when the office is closed for a weather emergency but the boss still expects him to meet a deadline.
"If one person [at an agency] is a teleworker then everyone is a teleworker," she says, "because everyone is working together and using the same tools."
Recent GSA guidance related to the Telework Enhancement Act requires telework training for all federal employees, even if they've declined to work outside the office. Since the act's passage, GSA has been busy putting out tech-friendly tipsheets that urge agencies to set up virtual meetings rather than in-office ones and to loop teleworking employees into in-office meetings by speakerphone or video.
One tipsheet, titled "Telework as a Team Sport," urges federal workers to mimic in-office culture by using instant messaging statuses to let colleagues know when they're stepping away from their computers and to appoint one team member as a virtual "water-cooler chat generator" who sparks interoffice IM and email conversations with internal blog posts and chat statuses.
Ultimately, virtual desktops and chat statuses can't completely overcome the physical distance between teleworkers and managers, says Jennifer Chronis, a vice president in IBM's federal division, which has been practicing telework for years. As managers get used to interacting with more employees through emails, chats and phone calls rather than swinging by their desks to gab, she says, those managers also should shift to an evaluation model that's firmly rooted in an employee's actual output rather than in a general sense of what she's doing day to day.
Those evaluations also can benefit from new cloud-based technology, Van Alstyne says, which can spit out metrics on even abstract work output at a level of fine-grain detail that traditional systems were never capable of.
There will be a temptation to use those metrics in a punitive or "Big Brotherly way," he says, but managers should resist that, instead using those metrics to let employees assess their own performance, correct as they go or come up with a new plan.
Over the Horizon
Getting the initial stages of the cloud transition right is especially important, experts say, because it's likely only the beginning.
Chip Emmet, a social and business collaboration manager at IBM, envisions a future in which businesses and federal agencies abandon the email inbox model entirely in favor of secure, internal social networks. Instead of filing an important email in a specially marked folder, Emmet says, federal workers will tag the message with various subject categories so it can easily be found by other team members or by people elsewhere in the agency who are working on similar projects and might benefit from looking at it.
That personal tagging would be supplemented by computer-automated tagging and weighting so that the most important messages or documents rise to the top based on an employee's preferences or search terms. Rudimentary versions of these sorts of internal social networks already are sprouting up in government. Agriculture, for example, runs USDA Connect, a Facebook-style social networks with employee profiles and interests. Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel's office went to the private organization IdeaScale to build a wiki that gathered crowdsourced recommendations for his federal mobility roadmap.
As more of daily life moves online, the cloud will allow the government to rapidly change and scale some of its most important but onerous citizen interactions, such as adding an extra line to a tax form or another page to the census form, at a fraction of the old cost, says MIT's Schrage.
The cloud also could lead to government technical operations increasingly being consolidated under a single department, Emmet says, something CIO VanRoekel describes as a shared services strategy.
One reason computer clouds can pack data so tightly and move them around so nimbly is they often require data and programs to be more standardized than in-house servers do. A cloud provider might support only a few of the most recent versions of Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Word, for example, so it can pack all the copies of those programs more tightly, like similarly shaped blocks in a game of Tetris.
As things stand, there are dozens of different government systems for managing finances, payrolls and human resources, each of which is too distinct to be rolled in with the others.
But as cloud storage forces these systems to become more uniform, sharing will become a more realistic option, according to Emmet.
Over the long term, that combination of increasingly similar and streamlined systems plus more computing power and easier access to it could radically transform which processes must be done by a human and which can be automated using text recognition and other tools, Van Alstyne says. And the huge uptick in readily available metrics and other information means more fact-based decisions can be pushed down the agency ladder, he says, making lower-level employees more independent and freeing up managers for higher value work.
"You don't simply want to speed work up," he says. "You want to transform it. The real gains aren't just about getting faster at doing the things you've traditionally done, but about being able to experiment with things you haven't previously done, new processes, new ways to present data and whole new business models."