Want to use a government facility for your next meeting? Here’s a new tool that helps (a little).

By Lance A. Simon, CGMP, GVEP

The SGMP National Chapter (NATCAP) monthly meetings are always interesting, but this week’s session was particularly interactive, even raucous. The discussion was about the use of government facilities as meeting spaces. The star panel presenter was Ms. Pathina Fitzgerald, Project Manager for GSA’s fledgling Federal Meeting Facilities Tool (FMFT) (http://fedmeetingspace.cfoc.gov/).

This week’s discussion took me all the way back to my first technology job. It was 1984 and as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts computer science department, I was thrilled to get a summer internship with one of the titans in technology at that time, the #2 company to IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation or “DEC” as it was popularly known.

I received a very focused assignment to design, build and implement an application in 2 months. And I did it. And it was never used. Here’s why, and what it tells us about the GSA’s FMFT efforts.

The application concept was quite simple. DEC at that time had facilities all across New England and dozens of conference rooms throughout those buildings that were underutilized, while others were always booked. Using a new product called “DECtalk” which provided voice recognition and simulated speech output over the phone, my project was to build a database of all of the conference rooms across all the facilities, then implement a phone-based system that would allow people to select the facility where they needed to meet, enter the number of people for the meeting, and automatically get a meeting room reserved that met their specifications. It was a fantastic idea that could save people many hours of searching for rooms, and save administrative workers many hours in managing reservations.

The only problem with the solution was — people. I quickly realized that senior managers and vice presidents had taken control of the conference rooms that were near their teams as “their turf” and they would be damned if a computer program would override their control. They simply disallowed many rooms from being included in my system, so it ended up as a failed, very partial solution that no one could use. (The good news for me was that this project led to a successful, exciting decade of working at DEC, but that’s another story.)

At the NATCAP meeting, a top government meeting planner said virtually the exact same thing about room reservations at government facilities. Agency directors and deputy directors maintain various “bumping” levels for meeting space. That means that, even if you go through the entire process to get a meeting space reserved, your meeting may be bumped at the last minute by anyone from the President to an agency Deputy Director. And if that happens then all of a sudden what looked like a cost-saving measure turns into a last-minute, pay-at-commercial-rates search for meeting space at local hotels or other facilities. Given the risk, few meeting planners will go this route.

Also, there needs to be a way for meeting planners and meeting technology platform vendors, to link into such a system. We were told that very soon, due to various security concerns, this new FMFT system will not be accessible to anyone outside the government! That makes no sense. I have a business digital certificate published by ACES ORC that allows me to handle many secure transactions with GSA already – why can’t that same digital certificate be used to validate my access to the FMFT?

Third, if our government is serious about digital government in the 21st century then we need secure standardized access via Web services to FMFT so that virtual meeting systems can link into this new valuable government resources for planning hybrid meetings.

Other important suggestions include:

  • Standardizing the way in which “sponsors” are required at various agencies in order to make reservations for meeting spaces at their facilities;
  • Managing the updating of this new database as agency contacts change;
  • Extending the scheduling boundary so that meeting spaces can be reserved multiple years in advance as is required for some meeting plans;
  • Integrating a standardized process for requesting booking of a government facility space, rather than just providing a directory of who to contact at each facility.
  • Intelligently interpolating the location of the nearby hotels so that meeting planners can efficiently view potential facilities with nearby per-diem based lodging options.
  • Listing and updating important qualifications for each facility such as A/V, Internet access, printing and attendee expansion options

Congratulations GSA, for taking this important step towards modernizing the use of government facilities for meetings. But as I can tell you from personal experience, this puzzle will not be solved with technology alone.

–And thank you, SGMP NATCAP Board, for awarding iCohere “Supplier of the Month” for December 2012!

Questions? Comments? [email protected]

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