D.C. telecenters to lose GSA funding

Thursday - 10/28/2010, 7:09am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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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."