• United States

Getting people to the seat, Part 1

Jan 27, 20044 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Ways to remove the barriers to federal telework center use

The Metropolitan Washington, D.C. area is home to 16 telework centers, well-placed in northern Virginia towns such as Herndon and Fredricksburg, and Maryland towns like Bowie and Waldorf. The centers are run jointly by the General Services Administration (GSA) and local business partners, and hold a mix of federal and private sector employees. Each of the 20 executive agencies is mandated by Congress to spend $50,000 per year for telework center use, in perpetuity.

In total, the 16 centers have 1,199 seats. But at last count, only 780 are filled.

What’s the problem? It seems there isn’t a single problem, but there are a few barriers to telework center use that we’ll explore this week and next. 

Paperwork seems to be the biggest complaint. Specifically, the paperwork required to set an employee up in a telework center, and the paperwork involved in paying the telework center for that employee’s use.

Telework centers are run by the GSA, but because the centers are technically considered real estate – rather than a service or product – their management falls under the GSA’s real estate section, the Public Building Service. That means when an agency tries to pay for telework center use, it won’t find the telework centers under what’s called the GSA schedule. The GSA schedule is the complex mechanism agencies use to buy products and services – computers, for instance – at a pre-negotiated prices. Vendors go to the GSA and “get on a schedule,” which means they cut a deal with the GSA, and the agency makes the vendor’s products and services available for agencies to buy. Real estate, in contrast, is procured via a bidding process.

But since the telework centers aren’t really real estate, their use is procured in a unique way that some, including Mark Wiatrowski, argue is a hindrance to telework center use. Wiatrowski is the owner of the Washington, D.C., telework center services firm Preferred Office Club and has been working toward creating a specific schedule for telework centers for two years.

Wiatrowski says because his company is a member of the Washington Council of Governments, he gets calls from federal agency employees all the time – from NASA, the Department of Transportation and Department of Commerce – who say they have a project and need a place for people to collaborate or want to use the center for telework. 

“Then nothing happens,” Wiatrowski says. “Those inquiries aren’t getting converted to users. They might get approval from their boss to do it, but they’re looking for an easy mechanism, and that’s a GSA schedule.”

But Linda Whitmer, director of the NetTech Center in Winchester, Va., says the process for using the center isn’t difficult. “It’s just one sheet of paper – The Telework Facility Reimbursement Information Sheet – that includes the user’s name, etc, the supervisor’s signature, and the department’s accounting code or credit card number.” Quarterly, center managers send their billing information to a point person in GSA, which handles the accounting process.

Even so, Whitmer agrees the centers should be on a GSA schedule: “It’s appropriate. Some departments in some agencies won’t let anyone buy anything unless it’s on a schedule. Or if it’s on a schedule, the perception is that it’s easier for them. There are so many agencies, departments, perceptions, people – that anything we can offer, another avenue, to get people to the seat is worthwhile.”

Yet, Whitmer adds, “It’s my understanding that applying for GSA schedule is expensive, time consuming and difficult. Maybe GSA doesn’t have to make it so difficult. But they have to have a process to make sure the government is getting the best pricing. With the government being the largest business in the world, it takes processes.” 

Next week: More barriers to Federal telework center use and ways to clear them.