Should government officials be legally obligated to use videoconferencing?

Citizens love to criticize those in the public sector who abuse their travel privileges, but a new piece of legislation in the U.S. may be taking technological alternatives too far

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Most taxpayers would agree there’s room to cut back on wasteful spending in government — and travel is one area that’s being targeted. Thanks to higher-quality, lower-cost options for videoconferencing, it makes sense for the feds to consider technology over travel. At least some of the time.

I don’t think it’s realistic to cut out travel altogether. What governments should consider — since they need to be fiscally responsible — is a better mix of technology and travel.

In July, a new piece of legislation was introduced in the U.S. that mandates the use of videoconferencing and other alternatives to business travel by public servants. Consider this: The U.S. spends up to US$15 billion a year on business travel costs.

The bill, called the “Stay in Place, Cut the Waste Act,” would require the feds to reduce agency travel expenses up to 50 per cent by 2017 through the use of videoconferencing technologies. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, who introduced the legislation, said such technologies still remain largely untapped by government.

Canada’s Economic Action Plan 2013, on the other hand, is aiming to cut departmental travel costs by $42.7 million — or five per cent — on an ongoing basis, starting 2013-14, through the use of telepresence and other remote meeting technologies. This might be an easier goal to meet than the Americans’ target of 50 per cent by 2017.

No doubt, there are benefits to this approach. A recent Mobile Work Exchange study in the U.S. found that public servants who use videoconferencing save 3.5 hours a week in productivity, which translates to US$8 billion in annual productivity savings (as well as a 33 per cent reduction in the travel budget).

But 76 per cent of those surveyed say their agencies “crash and burn” by not leveraging videoconferencing to the fullest extent. This is a critical point — because if governments plan to replace a chunk of their travel with videoconferencing technologies, they need to ensure their networks are able to handle the additional bandwidth requirements.

There’s always room to “cut the waste,” particularly in the public sector. But governments should be looking beyond “stay in place” at a broader strategy that encompasses mobility and unified communications.

This would allow public servants to remain productive, whether in the office, at home or on the road. So when they have to travel, they can stay connected, communicate and collaborate, with access to real-time information.

Video conferencing is one tool in the technology toolbox (and an important one) — but governments should be considering the whole toolbox.

Download a case study on how the UBC used videoconferencing to solve a major problem in its med school.

Image courtesy of ddpavumba at

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