"I'll meet with you any time, any place" once meant a full concession to the schedules of others -- when and where to get together. Now "any time, any place" (ATAP) meetings give participants complete control over their own schedules; they join in the group process whenever and wherever they choose.

ATAP meetings are convened by computer through any local or wide area network or the Internet. Such "computer conferencing" can take place over a period of two to six weeks, since participants contribute to the group process whenever they have a few minutes to spare, even late evenings or weekends.

In addition to convenience, ATAP meetings can result in considerable savings compared to the time and travel costs of face-to-face meetings. If a state commission can be as effective by meeting together three times a year instead of the usual four or five, everyone wins. Perhaps the face-to-face meetings are as frequent as before but shorter by a day apiece -- the savings still accumulate.

MEETING PREPARATION

When the Federal Highway Administration, Office of Motor Carriers, decided to reallocate staff among its nine regions last year, the problem was just one of many shared by the regional directors. If every shared problem was thoroughly addressed at face-to-face meetings, the sessions could go on for weeks. A good alternative was computer conferencing.

In preparation for a scheduled face-to-face meeting in Denver, Milt Schmidt, Region I director of the Office of Motor Carriers, proposed that the group convene for a month on an ATAP basis to review the staff reallocation problem. Using a computer conferencing product called DecisionWeb in conjunction with their e-mail system, the directors jointly identified and prioritized criteria they proposed to use for redistributing staff resources.

According to Schmidt, "The computer conferencing prepared us for a more effective face-to-face meeting. We completed the brainstorming, organizing and prioritizing in advance and reduced the Denver meeting by a full day. For the 10 participants, we saved $1,000 in per diem costs, but the big savings was in the full day of office time for each regional director."

ATAP meetings are different from other electronic forums such as bulletin boards, newsgroups, listservs and chat groups. An ATAP meeting gathers individuals together who share responsibility for a common task, who need to focus on an explicit problem, who must be successful in getting useful results from their collaboration. In short, ATAP meetings are convened to get work done with a broader base of effort.

MORE PARTICIPATION

As cutbacks reduce the amount of government money available for travel, many state agencies find that problem- solving is again becoming more centralized. Conferences that once brought together a variety of stakeholders and constituencies to share concerns and explore alternatives are far less frequently funded. Participation in government policy making is curtailed; decisions are made with less input.

Computer conferencing is an inexpensive means to widen participation when face-to-face meetings are prohibitive in cost. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for example, recently organized an ATAP meeting to review recovery operations following one particularly severe storm.

Using their own e-mail system and DecisionWeb, a nationwide group of over 50 participants was quickly convened. Although none of the participants had prior computer conferencing experience, nearly 200 proposals were shared, sorted, and prioritized during a six-week period. To bring a group of this size together from around the country, travel costs alone would have been in excess of $15,000.

"Although cost savings is a principal argument for using this process," said Nancy Meneely of FEMA's Response and Recovery Standards and Evaluation Staff Office, "an equally compelling benefit is its capability to discriminate issues seen as critical by participants representing a variety of functions, organizational levels and points of view. We were able to see very quickly which issues were