Federal CIO Aims to Goose US Agencies Into Mobile-izing

The sharp growth in the use of smartphones and tablets has spurred the U.S. government to keep pace with the private sector in the use of mobile devices.

While federal agencies have been incorporating mobile technology for several years, the rate of adoption could be — and should be — far greater, contends Steven VanRoekel, the federal government’s chief information officer. VanRoekel is aiming to issue a comprehensive federal mobile technology strategy by the end of March.

“The mobile revolution is upon us. Not only do the American people go online to pay bills, buy tickets and stay connected to their friends, but they are also adopting smart mobile technology at an incredible rate. This is changing the way we interact, the way we consume and the way we work,” he said.

VanRoekel launched an initiative in January designed to spur interest in federal adoption of mobile technologies.

The initiative involved the release of a draft federal mobile technology plan and an interactive, Internet-based “National Dialogue on the Federal Mobility Strategy,” in which government workers and the general public could offer and exchange comments through the end of January.

Mobile: Potential for Productivity

“To fundamentally change the way we do things in government, we need to seize on this mobile opportunity both in how we serve the public and in how government employees work,” Van Roekel said.

Among the core objectives listed in the draft federal strategy were these:

  • Build mobile technologies and services for reuse and share common services among agencies and public developers
  • Efficiently manage mobile and wireless acquisition, inventory, and expenses
  • Create a government-wide foundation to provide mobility services and functionality needed in all agencies
  • Foster collaboration among government agencies, industries and academia to accelerate mobility adoption
  • Establish a governance structure for federal mobility

Mobile has been put to good use in some isolated applications within the federal government, but “there is more we can do to seize the mobile opportunity, and we need to be bold in doing it,” said VanRoekel.

“We need to address the massive variations in the way we pay for mobile services across the government and leverage our size to influence purchasing power. We need to re-examine how we build applications and services. We need to focus on the fundamentals, ensure security and privacy concerns are addressed, and incorporate ‘Shared First’ and ‘Future First’ principles into everything we do,” he said.

The task of operating and hosting the mobile technology National Dialogue was delegated to the General Services Administration (GSA), which could play a significant role in federal acquisition of mobile capabilities. GSA, in fact, launched its own mobile adoption program, “Making Mobile Gov,” in June 2011 to provide mobile technology adoption assistance to federal agencies. GSA has been a strong advocate for mobile technology both for its own operations and to facilitate mobile use across the federal government.

“The administration’s mobility strategy is a timely and strategic initiative which will enable the federal government to address the critical factors such as policy, architecture and security for mobility to succeed,” Casey Coleman, chief information officer at GSA, told CRM Buyer.

Market Opportunity for Support Services

One critical area in developing a federal strategy will be defining what “mobile technology” means. GSA, for example, has included teleworking as a mobile activity and supported that concept by providing all employees with a laptop and equipping its regional offices with wireless capability. The agency also has upgraded its Web conferencing capability.

“GSA, like many agencies, has a mission which requires mobile solutions. Our research indicates that GSA employees are in the office 54 percent of the time. The remainder of the work week, they are likely to be out with customers and partners, delivering GSA solutions,” Coleman said.

While laptops are portable, and their use can include wireless access, they are not quite in the same category as smartphones and tablets when it comes to their “mobile” classification. VanRoekel included teleworking and laptops in his comments on promoting mobile — and he also noted a telecom contract revision at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that resulted in a US$4 million cost reduction by using a blanket purchase agreement for the service. Still, the focus of his initiative seemed to stress the use of handheld devices and the flourishing generation of apps associated with their use.

For vendors of devices and support services, the emergence of a federal mobile strategy should certainly present some opportunities, even if the shape of a potential market is a work in progress. In fact, the draft strategy outlines a multistage approach in which the first phase includes a short-term goal of creating a centralized acquisition process for mobile technology, and a medium-term objective of developing a plan for mobile apps.

“We don’t see a straight-line relationship on mobile, where every government worker gets a device,” Tim Hoechst, chief technology officer at Agilex Technologies, told CRM Buyer. Eventually, more workers will be using laptops, smartphones or tablets, and that may reduce costs during equipment replacement cycles compared with purchasing desktops.

“Right now, we see the federal government preparing the infrastructure in the sense of building connectivity and access to facilitate mobile,” Hoechst said.

However, a quite substantial market for support services will emerge as mobile use grows. One critical factor will be determining the most productive application of mobile technologies. Conventional commercial apps and social media programs may not be the best channels for mobile use at federal agencies.

“It will be important for using mobile to access emails or calendars or messaging. But it will be more important that the use be associated with the ability of a federal worker to access agency information systems and agency enterprise capabilities,” noted Hoechst.

The reason is that so many federal workers have inherently mobile jobs in the field — such as agricultural specialists, inspectors, border patrol agents, case workers, and health professionals. The apps that will need development should be geared to specific agency missions.

The task of making agency information and enterprise resources “mobile enabled” for access — and providing security and functionality — will generate a need for software support services, Hoechst contended.

Beyond the social media and current novelty factor of mobile devices lies an opportunity to utilize mobile technology as a resource to vastly improve productivity, Agilex notes in a white paper aimed at the federal market.

“To be successful, agencies will need to focus beyond the application itself. In reality, this is an opportunity to reengineer business processes and IT systems to shift decision-making to the point of interaction. As a result, many factors need to be considered to deliver the optimal solution,” the report says.

The emergence of mobile technology has developed so recently that demand for government mobile applications is still at a relatively low level.

“We have had a lot of experience with agencies in facilitating mobile applications, but these have been at a modest scale. The really big support providers haven’t made big inroads yet because the government hasn’t initiated the kind of big-scale operations that interest them. So there’s a lot of opportunity for firms like ours,” Hoechst said.

As a result of early market development, firms like Agilex that can meet the scale-up requirements of federal agencies will be able to grow as the federal conversion to mobile technology grows.

“We are developing the scale-up capability,” Hoechst said. “We intend to stay in this market.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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