Videoconferencing slow to gain ground in government

Videoconferencing technology could save the federal government nearly $13 billion every year, according to at least one estimate, but agencies face hurdles in adopting it.

Despite the potential to realize billions of dollars annually in productivity savings and reduced travel expenses, federal agencies are dragging their heels on adopting teleconferencing as an alternative to traditional meetings.

President Barack Obama in November 2011 directed agencies to create plans for alternatives to government travel, including the use of videoconferencing. But despite his executive order, agencies are reluctant to fully embrace the technology and many federal employees still favor meetings in-person or over the phone, according to the “Fly Me to Your Room: Government Video Conferencing Collaboration Report," which the Telework Exchange released on Sept. 24. 

The organization, on behalf of Blue Jeans Network, polled 128 federal government employees to examine how videoconferencing is used and what prevents its broader implementation. According to the report, videoconferencing can save feds 3.5 hours weekly in productivity, which translates to $8 billion in yearly productivity savings if just 50 percent of feds used videoconferencing. Greater videoconferencing would also cut agency travel budgets by a third, which amounts to roughly $4.95 billion in savings.

Despite the potential savings, the report revealed just 36 percent of federal employees use videoconferencing. In contrast, 90 percent at least monthly speak to colleagues outside of their office via phone, and 95 percent use email to communicate at least monthly.

Most feds who didn’t think their agency is taking full advantage of videoconferencing said the lack of available tools (53 percent) and network/bandwidth limitations (46 percent) are the biggest obstacles to adoption.

Culture challenges (40 percent) ranked high on the list of hurdles as well. A January 2012 inspector general report highlighted how both employee and managerial attitudes matter when it comes to adoption. Low motivation for using videoconferencing was cited as one of Interior Department’s obstacles to fully realize the benefits of videoconferencing. The Agriculture Department, on the other hand, put videoconferencing to use and successfully slashed travel spending by $47 million.

“Since the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, we have seen an incredible change in how government is working together remotely,” Cindy Auten, general manager at Telework Exchange, said in a statement. “We are riding the wave of mobility and must arm federal workers with the right tools to get the job done in the best way possible. Collaboration tools, like videoconferencing, allow coworkers to come together visually but without lengthy travel, or large amounts of time away from one’s work station. It best enables cooperation and teamwork in these mobile times.”

However, the act didn’t include funding, and while many feds are eager to embrace the new technology, they simply don’t have access to it, said Kate Lister, president at Global Workplace Analytics.

“Others have it, but have never been trained in how to use it,” she said. “I know, because I've tried to video/teleconference with many of them. Some don't have access. Others don't know how to use it. And still others have problems getting past the firewall issues. Oftentimes, we'll resort to using their home or personal devices to make things work. That's just nuts.”

The survey found nearly 85 percent think their agency’s use of the technology will grow over the next five years. Reduced travel budget savings was mentioned as a key driver, perhaps not a surprise considering how a string of conferences within the past few years were deemed wasteful.

But ultimately, it comes down to agencies receiving the funding they need to advance their use of technology, Lister said.

“Without it, their hands are simply tied,” she said. “I actually sat behind a GS-14 in a conference and watched him spend more than an hour building one PowerPoint slide. His computer was so slow, he'd type a word, then wait several minutes before the screen updated.”