This is one in an occasional series exploring how federal agencies are finding and implementing innovative ways to drive efficiency and cut costs.
The federal government could save almost $5 billion annually by substituting video conferencing for face-to-face meetings and conventions, according to a new study by Telework Exchange, a public/private partnership emphasizing telework.
The study comes on the heels of the government’s travel scandals and President Barack Obama’s directive to government agencies to make more frequent and better use of video and audio conferencing to conduct meetings.
According to the study, 92% of those surveyed said videoconferencing would save money, 53% cited improved collaboration and 47% noted a better work-life balance with the use of the technology.
The survey estimated that the federal government could save about 30% of the annual $15 billion spent on conference travel.
But despite the anticipated savings, the study did find some reluctance to make greater use of videoconferencing, according to James Matheson, vice president of marketing for Blue Jeans, a telecom startup and video conferencing service provide, which underwrote the survey of government agencies.
“There is a bit of reluctance,” Matheson admitted. “The key is getting people out there to use it. If you can avoid travel but use that video conferencing for face to face collaboration, people are ready to give that a try.”
Matheson conceded that meeting by video has been plagued by technological problems in the past, including incompatibility of systems and poor quality of transmission. But he said Blue Jeans and other firms have technology now that allows people with different video systems to link together reliably. He also conceded that sometimes an in-person meeting is best but said video conferencing can cut down the need for so many personal meetings.
David Maldow, writer and associate editor at Telepresence Options, and a consultant and analyst of telecommunications, said video conferencing can be used in innovative ways to not only save on travel, but to bring people closer to their government.
For example, he said, if a veterans office in a remote area has a veteran come in with signs of post traumatic stress disorder, there may not be a psychologist available for miles. But with a video link, the vet could talk privately with a doctor and never leave his local VA office for example.
“That may not save you money,” he said, “but the benefit is undeniable.”
The survey was conducted via email to Telework Exchange’s membership base. Only respondents who worked for a federal government agency were included in the sample, which was made up of 11% military respondents and 89% non-military government.
GSA’s now-famous 2010 Las Vegas conference that led to government investigations and heads rolling at the agency due to extravagant spending, is an example where video conferencing could have saved beaucoup bucks, according to industry analyst Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Contractors, which advises businesses on getting government contracts.
And President Obama, last November ordered a 20% cut in digital devices, travel and printing costs and cited video conferencing as a way to reduce travel.
Maldow also said another benefit of video conferencing is quicker action on pending decisions. If the principals don’t have to fly somewhere and coordinate all their calendars, faster decisions can be made. But he too, bemoaned the technical problems which have plagued earlier systems, though he said newer technology has made the videoconference more cost-effective and more life-like.
He said Cisco Systems is “pushing” a $250,000 video system which gives good eye contact and puts a person in the room in life size, but while systems like this are almost as good as the real thing, he said, “once in a while you really have to be in the same room.” Blue Jeans’ technique is to link different kinds of video conferencing like Skype and make other video calling devices more compatible and reliable.
At present, according to Blue Jeans’ Matheson, audio conferencing makes up 100 billion minutes a year both for government and private enterprise, “and video conferencing less than 1 billion. We still have a long way to go in terms of converting audio to video,” he said.