Seats of responsibility

'Saving money isn't necessarily the best reason for seat management. Getting the information flowing is where seat management made a huge difference at ATF.'

'Patrick Schambach

Agencies have to do their homework if they want seat management to succeed

Where seat management works, it's a godsend; where it doesn't, it's probably the agency's own fault.

So say two experts with what may be government's most successful seat management initiatives under their belts.

According to Robert Freitas, acting deputy program manager for Outsourcing Desktops in NASA, and Patrick Schambach, former chief information officer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Transportation Security Administration, the seeds of success or failure are planted before delivery of the first PC.

Preparing for successful outsourcing means defining expectations and requirements, getting support from top management and employee buy-in, and committing to a partnership with the contractor. Without such tending, a seat management initiative might survive, but it's unlikely to flourish, Freitas and Schambach say.

'You have to understand very well what the needs are of your workforce,' said Schambach, a driving force behind ATF's 6,000-seat'now 8,500'outsourcing initiative. 'What's on their desktops? You have to have those requirements nailed down. If you were to walk into a lot of agencies, there's a good chance they don't know that.'

At NASA, which launched ODIN in 1999 with 6,000 seats'now 39,000'Freitas likened defining the requirements to 'a mission to Mars. You have to think ahead of time of everything you'll need to take with you. NASA didn't do the best job there, and we really got hit with Moore's law,' as the mushrooming power of technology overtook the agency's requirements.

Intense relationship

After six years of cooperating to eliminate ambiguities, such as defining what constituted a consumable, an 'intense partnership exists' between NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., he said.

'This is something that's too often overlooked by agencies,' said Schambach, now senior vice president and general manager of e-government and infrastructure solutions at PEC Solutions Inc. of Fairfax, Va. 'I think success in any IT engagement has to be a two-party success.'

Agencies that fail in this often do so by not observing contract specifications, said Chip Mather, a partner at IT consultancy Acquisition Solutions Inc. of Oakton, Va. 'The seat management contractor may be there to install hardware but will be asked to implement information security and system discipline,' he said. 'Particularly with managed services, I see contractors sometimes held to standards that the agency had not previously imposed.'

There will always be problems, Schambach said, 'but when there are, you have to deal with them as a partnership. It can't always be up to the contractor to solve the problems.'

With the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet, he said, 'I think the Navy didn't do a great job of pinning down the requirements ahead of time, and EDS Corp. didn't do a great job of nailing down those requirements at the beginning. Later when, inevitably, there were problems, the Navy said, 'We don't care why there's a problem, it's EDS' job to fix it.' They eventually negotiated to the right position, but not without a certain erosion of trust.'

'It wasn't seat management but process issues that led to NMCI's problems,' said Stan Soloway, president of IT industry alliance the Professional Services Council. 'The Navy had no idea how many networks it had, and it had no change management strategy in place.'

Today, ODIN is part of the NASA culture. But at first, the agency stumbled over its strategy for change management and educating users on the initiative and how it would affect them. 'ODIN just got kind of shoved down their throats, and it left a bad taste in their mouths,' Freitas said.

In the early days of outsourcing, ATF and NASA struggled on other fronts, as well. When in March 2002, the Government Accountability Office reported on seat management initiatives at six agencies, including ATF and NASA, it found that desktop outsourcing improved agency IT management and user support. But GAO also complained it 'could not determine whether they were achieving expected costs and benefits because they did not perform sufficient up-front analyses or routinely monitor actual results.'

Neither agency had taken the baseline cost measurements GAO sought for its report because, unlike interoperability and standardization, lowering costs was not a goal, both Freitas and Schambach say.

Both also say seat management accomplished its intended goals. 'And there are a lot of intangible costs that you can't measure,' Freitas adds. 'We have a logistics department at each center that's relieved of responsibility for desktops, cell phones, etc. How do measure the value of that?'

'Saving money isn't necessarily the best reason for outsourcing seat management,' Schambach said. 'Getting the information flowing is where seat management made a huge difference at ATF.'

ATF's second big goal in outsourcing was budgeting for desktop replacements, he said. 'Where do you get the budget to outfit everyone in the agency with the same technology at the same time? You can't.'

When Schambach left ATF in 2000 to become CIO of the newly created Transportation Security Administration, he launched his second successful seat management initiative.

'At TSA there wasn't a before-and-after picture like there was at ATF, because at TSA we were starting with a clean slate,' he said. 'But I did have the experience to know that having the flat payment stream and a renewable technology source gave us flexibility to do a refresh of that technology when we thought it was necessary.'

Managing user expectations

With an IT staff limit of 150 for 55,000 users, Schambach hired IT program managers to oversee contractors and reach out to users, ensuring accurate requirements and open communications.

Managing user expectations can make or break an implementation, Acquisition Solutions' Mather said. 'Where seat management has been successful, such as at TSA, cultural rather than technological factors have made the crucial difference,' he said.

But despite these and other successes'at the Peace Corps, the State Department and, in a more service-menu-driven model, at the Drug Enforcement Administration'seat management has some harsh critics.

'I sense that the time for this solution as a major factor in federal IT has passed,' said Larry Allen, executive vice president of industry alliance Coalition for Government Procurement. Among the factors for its demise, he said, 'is that the General Services Administration's Seat Management governmentwide acquisition contract never came close to realizing its potential. It was really supposed to be the end-all solution, yet it largely failed.'

Also, he said, 'seat management works best when you have a reasonable idea of your needs now and three to five years from now. For a lot of federal customers, this was not possible with downsizing and outsourcing.'

Building into the contract the flexibility to adapt to users and changes in technology can obviate that problem, Freitas and Schambach say.

The third nail in seat management's coffin is security, according to Allen. 'It follows that managing your own network might be a better way to ensure security than if a private seat management contractor did it for you.'

Security was a major concern at TSA, Schambach said. But those concerns were addressed in the contract. Further, he said, 'whether they choose to do it at the desktop level or they look at outsourcing other services, all CIOs are having to face the fact that they're just not going to have the resources to do it all in-house.'

Despite any challenges, Freitas said, interest in seat management is far from dead. 'I get calls on it all the time,' he said. 'I just got a call from the Army Corps of Engineers. I even heard from the New York State Highway Administration.'

'Seat management may or may not be yesterday's strategy, but it doesn't matter,' Soloway said. 'What matters is that we not second-guess decisions that were made, sometimes several years ago, but that we figure out what it takes to make it work.'

Sami Lais is a freelance writer in Takoma Park, Md.

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