How much managing is in seat management?

Management is a troublesome concept. It is often taken to mean proper
execution of procedures or processes. In short, doing things right. It’s more than
that, though.

It’s true that managers are supposed to do things right, but they’re also
supposed to keep an eye on the outcome of all the activities they are responsible for.

Management implies many activities. Employees often aspire to manager status because it
means higher status and salary, and with that, more responsibility and accountability. We
ascribe lofty purposes to our management activities.

The federal information technology field has now assigned the word management to an
old, routine set of activities. A new form of management could produce some improvement in
how things are done but not much in accomplishing agency missions. I’m referring to
desktop PC management or seat management—the newest oxymoron to enter the federal IT

What does seat management have to do with managing? Do we really expect to manage
desktop computing? Yes, if we care about what comes out of all those desktop computers. If
all we expect to accomplish is to upgrade and maintain systems to keep pace with
technology, we sure have assigned a lofty title to the process.

Of course, seat management and desktop management are just phrases that are defined as
outsourcing the set of activities that result in up-to-date and efficient desktop
computing—including networking—for agency employees who require it. Seat
management includes acquiring commercial best practices to meet a customer’s total
desktop IT needs.

Some General Services Administration officials and vendors estimate the multiyear value
of desktop computer outsourcing contracts at $20 billion. This dollar amount suggests
importance, while implying that by not outsourcing, agencies have failed to
control—to manage—their PC resources.

The reality is that the potential federal business for desktop computing in any one
year is in the vicinity of $6 billion.

We’ve just closed a year in which four highly publicized desktop PC outsourcing
buys were awarded. Together the contracts are likely to produce less than $1 billion in
revenue this year spread among more than a dozen contractors.

So far, few agencies are showing much inclination to outsource desktop computing via
use of these contracts.

Two of the vehicles are NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory contract with OAO Corp.
of Greenbelt, Md., and the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Firearms blanket purchasing agreement with Unisys Corp.

The deals include buying PCs as well as the LANs that connect them.

The space agency’s Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA and GSA’s
much-ballyhooed Seat Management program are poised for action, perhaps. Buying hardware
and software is expensive, but assuring compatibility among different commercial
application releases and interoperability among software tools has become nearly
impossible. Outsourcing the whole mess definitely has an appeal.

Replacing machines was different in the days agencies kept them for 10 years. Today,
users typically replace machines that are less than 3 years old, and the average life
expectancy is declining. The need to replace or upgrade software is even worse. Technology
changes and upgrades occur too rapidly for agencies to assimilate them properly. And
ceaseless software churning is expensive and labor-intensive.

One industry source has placed the annual cost of ownership for a typical PC at
$10,000. This sounds high, but hidden costs are rolled into support requirements.

There really is a need to manage desktop services, outsourced or in-house. More than
just leasing computers is involved. Although the capital investment part of the
acquisition is enormous, support services will become the most important element.

The real question is: What kind of support will government users require? The answer
is: whatever they need to accomplish their mission.

Now we have an idea of the scope of management requirements. Like any business
organization, the government requires top operating efficiency from its desktop computers
and improved services so that it can accomplish its missions.

The desktop PC market is greater than the sum of its parts. JPL’s PC outsourcing
contractor and ATF’s BPA contractor deliver services by assembling teams of
companies, and each team supplies a part of the solution. Collectively they provide
products and services to enhance performance through improved connectivity and

Few companies can provide it all, but having lots of team members introduces its own
inefficiencies. Prime contracts must pass on to customers the accumulated costs of
integrating and servicing desktop products. Put another way, the total cost in outsourcing
seats is likely to exceed the total price of the parts. Therefore, agency managers cannot
make the case for outsourcing desktop computing solely on grounds of cost savings.

The additional piece of service that the pundits may not have anticipated in the
$10,000-per-year annual estimate is the cost of actually performing management functions
beyond the technology that sits on the desktop—all the logistics of ordering,
delivering, connecting and billing.

There is another hidden cost incurred when agencies try to determine that the
outsourcing experience really did improve agency program performance.

In desktop outsourcing contracts, government aims achieve that difference. If the
government does very little management of its desktop today, as GSA reported during its
preliminary needs assessment for the Seat Management Program, what can we expect of
federal managers after Seat Management or some other outsourcing arrangement is introduced
into the picture? Who is prepared to assure—and prove—that desktop computing
resources have gotten better? n

Robert Deller is president of Market Access International Inc., an information
technology market research, sales and support company in Chevy Chase, Md. His e-mail
address is

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