Greenwire - by Emily Yehle
The Interior Department could save up to $22 million in travel costs each year if employees used its video teleconferencing equipment more often and more efficiently, according to the agency's inspector general.
IG Mary Kendall made five recommendations to Interior officials in the new report, including updating its video teleconferencing (VTC) equipment so that offices have compatible systems. Though the department has $5 million worth of equipment -- and 315 teleconferencing "endpoints" throughout the country -- the systems vary from office to office.
"At a time when Federal agency budgets are increasingly tight, the use of VTC technology is an economical and immediate way to stretch the Department's dollars and, at the same time, support the President's green initiatives and greenhouse gas reduction efforts," Kendall wrote. "The support and backing of senior leadership will underscore the savings and environmental benefits to be achieved from use of VTC technology."
Interior officials agreed with many of her recommendations, but they also contend that such "traditional" video teleconferencing is not the silver bullet it was once thought to be. Acting Assistant Secretary Pamela Haze wrote in a response to the report that the video and audio quality "does not remotely approximate face-to-face contact," meaning it has made little, if any, dent in travel costs.
"Maximizing the value of our current investment by seeking ways to enable interoperability of VTC systems, to the extent that doing so does not require significant new investment, is very much a good interim step," she wrote. "However, the Department's long-term VTC strategy must consider emerging technology and capability and the likelihood of achieving the Department's long term business goals."
Agencies have stressed teleconferencing as one of the primary ways they plan to cut back on travel -- and thus greenhouse gas use -- to comply with a governmentwide initiative to become more sustainable. President Obama has set a governmentwide goal of reducing direct greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent and indirect emissions by 13 percent by 2020. Interior's individual goal for indirect emissions, which includes travel, is a 9 percent reduction.
But if Interior's experience is common, it could indicate that the solution may be more challenging than many agencies originally anticipated. Haze wrote that traditional video teleconferencing may fade away in the face of personal tablets and high-end "telepresence" systems that work better for longer and larger meetings.
Not so simple
The IG report also outlines the obstacles to wider usage of VTC. Employees often consider work travel a perk, leading to a lack of motivation to use systems that are often tucked away in a little-known office. Past experiences with older equipment might further dissuade them from seeking out the cheaper alternative.
Interior also lacks a departmentwide policy that encourages video teleconferencing over travel, according to the IG. In response to the report, officials said they plan to create policies on procuring and using VTC as part of the agency's "IT Transformation," a sweeping plan to revamp its information technology infrastructure.
IG auditors recommended that the department also consider moving VTC equipment to correlate with the most common flights. For example, 452 trips between the Nevada cities of Reno and Las Vegas cost the department more than $277,000 in fiscal 2009, but the offices in each city share only one VTC port.
In total, Interior spent about $206 million on travel is fiscal 2009, according to the IG; almost $63 million was spent on airfare, and almost $143 million was spent on "non-airfare costs." IG auditors estimate that up to $8.5 million could be saved on trips of two nights or less. More than $22 million could be saved if trips of four nights or less were included.
If travel is thus reduced by 10 to 20 percent, it would eliminate an estimated 298 to 596 tons of carbon dioxide emissions or the equivalent of 31,000 to 62,000 gallons of gasoline, according to the IG report.