Federal agencies across the government have dipped their toes in the mobile pond. While agencies have implemented the new technology for a variety of reasons, there are a couple of common lessons learned shared by the early adopters.
Two federal chief information officers who have overseen their agency’s mobile transitions shared best practices and compelling use-cases in a Federal Drive panel discussion as part of Federal News Radio’s special series, Gov 3.0: It’s Mobile.
Pilot projects essential
With advances in mobile technology and increasing agency adoption, for many, the mobile revolution is simply the new normal.
Consequently, agencies have stopped thinking about smartphones and tablets only as shiny new toys and more as tools to fulfill their missions.
“We’re collectively getting more comfortable with these new devices and how to manage and secure these devices,” said Rick Holgate, chief information officer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.” We’re not completely there yet, but we’ve at least got some experience under our belts,” he said.
Much of that experience has consisted of pilot projects, deploying alternative devices to targeted groups.
Those starter projects — which allow agencies to experiment and learn as they go — are starting to bear fruit, Holgate said, as more agencies are actually moving into the implementation phase.
The pilot process is also helpful in figuring out the rules of the road when it comes to mobile, said Sanjay Sardar, CIO of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“I think the federal government as a whole also is learning how to build policy and governance around these things,” Sardar said. “Mobile devices kind of bring in a whole different way of looking at this — looking at how data is dispersed, how the devices are kept.”
‘Adopt and standardize’
Several months ago, ATFE deployed iPhones to all of the agency’s special agents and is now in the process of deploying iPhones to the rest of ATFE’s workforce that traditionally might have received other devices, such as BlackBerry smartphones.
One issue still to be resolved is determining the “mix of devices” that each employee requires, Holgate said. For example, do all workers need both a smartphone and a tablet?
“It’s easy to keep adding more and more devices to the mix and make it a more expensive mix of devices — certainly employees love that,” Holgate said. “But as a CIO, I’m not that fond of continuing to increase the expenses of the enterprise.”
In addition to supplying employees with new mobile technology, agency CIOs should also consider phasing out legacy technology that no longer serves its stated purposed, such as laptops that never leave an employee’s desk.
The typical two-step process is “adopt and standardize,” Sardar said. “I think we’re all looking at which is the right device? Where does it fit? It is business-case based.”
Striking a balance
The importance of the business case is also true of mobile application development.
Sardar said FERC is still in the beginning phases of building apps.
“There’s probably an app for everything in the commercial space,” Sardar said, but not necessarily in the government. “In the government, we have to figure out what do we adapt, what do we use and how do we use it?
For ATFE, the process of developing native apps has been eased somewhat by the fact that the agency has settled on deploying devices built on Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS.
“It’s the platform that seems of most compelling use-case, if you will, to our employees,” he said.
But there’s also tradeoff involved, he said.
“There’s always the balance between platform-agnostic aspect of something like HTML 5, which allows portability across platforms … versus some of the additional functionality that you may be able to deliver through actual native applications on the devices,” he said. “And I think we’re still working through what’s the right balance there. Since we have standardized for the most part, for now, on a single platform doing native application development is easier because we don’t have the diversity of devices in our enterprise.”
Sardar, who said FERC had also zeroed in on iOS, echoed that point.
“Right now, it does just make sense,” he said. “But there are going to be new platforms that come out very quickly.”
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.