Last fall, the General Services Administration (GSA) consolidated its remote helpdesk support under a single procurement vehicle called GITGO – the GSA Information Technology Global Operations contract. This effort is designed to integrate and align helpdesk operations with the agency’s internal security and IT departments to provide support on a 24/7 basis to GSA’s 15,000 employees and authorized contractors. GITGO services the desktops, laptops, servers, commercial software, GSA-specific applications, and telecommunications in more than 500 locations, including teleworkers and other remote staff.
Theresa Noll, senior telework program analyst for GSA’s Office of Governmentwide Policy and a full-time teleworker, says that the effort has significantly improved technical support for the agency’s mobile workforce. "There’s one number to call now, so you feel completely connected," she says. "You know that you’re going to be able to get through to a qualified support person, get an answer to the problem you encounter, and rely on information about just how long it will take to get it fixed. We’re finding that there is an increasing confidence in the helpdesk now."
Although GSA always has put a strong emphasis on its technical support services, the new arrangement incorporates key lessons learned from the past decade.
Best practices that now benefit GSA users include:
. Previously, GSA had a number of internal helpdesks, often office- or application-specific. None were able to effectively answer questions about customized GSA administrative applications. By consolidating all of those operations into a single enterprise and adding expertise in GSA administrative applications, GSA realizes cost savings, faster response, improved system performance and productivity, and perhaps most importantly, more satisfied IT customers, according to Noll.
"In the past, if you had a requirement for help with a customized GSA application, such as the travel system, the helpdesk probably would be unable to help you, never mind know where to send you for help," she says. "Now, the minute you call and hear the automated menu of available support options possible you can – and do – get help right away."
Universal support also allows the helpdesk to post automated messages on its menu announcing common problems that users are experiencing, which eliminates a lot of redundant and unnecessary calls to helpdesk operators.
. Helpdesk calls once were routed to the first available agent. Now a menu of options allows users to reach a helpdesk agent who specializes in an application or technical area to more quickly resolve questions. To name a few, there are support personnel who specialize in the GSA time-and-attendance and travel systems; specific commercial applications, such as e-mail, collaboration tools, and word processing software; hardware, including printers; and Internet access. Users inquiring about remote access, telework, a remote access system, dial-up or Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections, for example, are sent to one support team.
"Previously, the helpdesk operator was responsible for fielding whatever question was going to be asked. Now, those receiving the calls are much more likely and equipped to respond in their area of expertise, and to understand the hand off required for other support functions," Noll says.
As such, if a caller has a question about security or a complex technical issue, the helpdesk operator can quickly refer the request to the appropriate GSA staff member – without requiring the end user to make another call.
…but with General Knowledge
. To avoid myopia and misunderstanding the framework in which GSA staff operate, GITGO helpdesk agents receive training on the primary technologies in use by most of the agency’s workforce, including hardware, software, and telecommunications equipment.
"This approach gives the support staff a context to help determine the potential cause of problems reported, as they often are dealing with myriad platforms and technologies, including PDAs, air cards, and a large assortment of telecommunication and Internet connectivity devices," Noll says. "The overall goal is to solve the problems and avoid the ‘fingerpointing syndrome’ where the support staff blames the other technologies and devices in use, and the user cannot resolve the immediate issue. Having an overview of the most commonly used equipment and software is essential to ensure that users and their productivity are the focus of delivering an effective helpdesk for remote users."
. Not all problems are the same, and GSA’s new helpdesk recognizes this with a priority scheme and timeline. If multiple users are affected, the helpdesk promises to fix the problem within two hours. If a problem is unique to just one user, the timeline for addressing the matter is four hours or less. Problems that require a two-part fix are given a separate and specific timeline.
"In the past, we often did not know when a reported problem would be fixed – it might be today or tomorrow," Noll recalls. "Now we have reliable expectations and the helpdesk service provider’s contract performance is tied into their responsiveness."
Helpdesk staff also sends out e-mail notifications, letting workers know when the problem resolution is underway and when it has been completed.
. The new consolidated helpdesk allows GSA to grant waivers on a case by case basis for remote workers to install software on government-furnished equipment if that application is critical to the employee’s job. An example might be specialized drawing or design software for use by a building engineer or system architect.
"You must have a waiver process in any enterprise system that exists to protect everyone’s interest. Exceptions to standard practices are thoroughly reviewed for security and other interoperability issues before they are approved for use," Noll says. Although approved additions to standard configurations are not supported by the helpdesk, "it is an important best practice for remote support models, since it enables telework for an expanded group of employees."
Formalized Remote Diagnostics
. In the past, not all GSA support staff had the ability to access and manage an end-user’s computer remotely, and those that did used this diagnostic process on an ad hoc basis. The new consolidated helpdesk provides for remote diagnostics "in a much more organized, procedural, secure fashion," Noll says. "This capability has a standard procedure for use and can be very helpful to teleworkers."
Customer Satisfaction Surveys
. Employees who use the consolidated helpdesk are surveyed on their experience at least quarterly. The result? "Continuous improvement," says Noll.
Other GSA Secrets to Effective Teleworker Support
- Push Support. Patches for anti-virus and other software updates and upgrades are automatically pushed out to GSA employees. If a teleworker happens to be offline at that time, the update will install when the employee logs in to the network
- Core Configuration. Teleworkers have a government-issued laptop, docking station, remote access software, and the same productivity and security software found on a desktop or laptop used in a GSA office environment
- Stress the System. GSA has integrated telework with its Continuity of Operations (COOP) planning and by doing so, the agency periodically can stress-test its network, including their broadband and throughput, telework capacity, remote user licensing agreements, remote server capacity, and helpdesk. After such exercises, officials conduct a survey of those involved. "It’s a perfect way to find your shortcomings and focus on improvement," says Theresa Noll, senior telework program analyst for GSA’s Office of Governmentwide Policy