How snow days make the argument for IT reform
- By Ben Marglin
- Mar 06, 2014
The snowstorm on Monday was the fourth snow closure for federal agencies in Washington this winter, and the tenth weather related closure for schools in Fairfax County, Va., where many federal workers, government contractors and their families live.
The large number of closures this winter made for a very disruptive work schedule, especially for parents. This meant hundreds of thousands of public and private workers that don’t normally telecommute had to login from home to keep up with emails and attend conference calls in order to keep business running as usual.
Thanks to advances in IT infrastructure, teleworking has greatly improved over the last decade, and has become a great way for federal agencies to give their employees the flexibility they desire as well as saving the organization money by reducing real estate costs. However, due to outdated or inflexible IT systems, many government agencies, government contractors and private organizations are ill-equipped to handle spikes in the number of remote workers telecommuting during unusual circumstances, like snow days.
When IT systems are not equipped to handle the large number of subscribers, it presents challenges to employees who are unable to login to their networks, dial-in to conference bridges, and access the materials required to remain productive while working from home.
And even if workers are able to access their networks remotely, the systems are often unbearably slow and burdensome, frequently freezing or sending error messages. This down time not only means losing millions of dollars through lost employee productivity, but a lost investment in their IT systems if it was poorly architected to handle spikes in demand.
An active topic on Capitol Hill right now is IT reform, which would help federal CIOs optimize IT delivery and improve IT acquisition, and could significantly improve the teleworking experience for the increasing percentages of federal employees and contractors that are eligible to work from home. CIOs today are able to structure IT delivery, taking advantage of new technologies and new acquisition models to better address the stress of a snow day situation.
In theory, with cloud technology, a CIO should be able to scale up capacity for technologies that support telecommuters on a snow day very easily and quickly, and then scale them back down when the workforce returns to normal post snow day. Using this method, they would only accept the marginal cost of scaling up for that short period of time - one day, versus having to make a longer term commitment. The concept is not unlike an energy utility, when there is a heat wave, energy companies’ scale up the supply to meet the increased demand, and then scale back when less is needed.
Improved IT acquisition is important because federal CIOs need to have the acquisition structure in place to accommodate a model that can scale up and down quickly, and most traditional government procurements are not built on a ‘buy by the glass’ type of model.
Without IT reform, federal CIOs are challenged when looking to modernize their IT systems to provide workers the systems they need to perform their job functions remotely. If successful, IT reform will help CIOs be more innovative and support them in acquiring the technology needed cheaper and faster, resulting in increased productivity by employees.
Ben Marglin is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he focuses on strategic IT consulting in areas including governance, strategic planning, portfolio and investment management, and enterprise architecture.