Sending workers on the road
From the tangled suburbs of Northern Virginia to the remote corners of South
Dakota, federal workers are becoming mobile workers — to the delight and
consternation of their supervisors.
Federal managers say they are eager to reap the benefits of a more productive
and flexible work force, but their enthusiasm is tempered by concerns about
security, training and equipment maintenance that arise when formerly deskbound
employees grab a laptop and hit the road.
Two kinds of mobile worker exist in the federal government, said Wanda
Smith, chief operating officer for the Federal Technology Service's AnyWARE
Government program (www.fts.gsa. gov/html/fts_mall/AnyWARE_ Government.html):
Longtime mobile employees such as Internal Revenue Service field agents
and, increasingly, office employees who want to work while traveling, check
e-mail from home or occasionally telecommute to avoid bad weather or traffic.
Smith said the second group is emerging because "government is finally
beginning to realize that people logging in from home can increase productivity."
One of the challenges for agencies is to identify supervisors who are
able and willing to manage mobile workers.
"Office-bound managers have traditionally been suspicious of home workers,
but for the most part, people are able to manage themselves and their time,"
Smith said. "It's important to find the right manager, not one who thinks
it's a dumb idea or is suspicious that workers are goofing off."
Agencies with experience in managing mobile workers generally have specific
goals for workers at home or on the road, and such policies increase the
success of their mobile programs. "IRS agents have a very clear idea of
what's expected of them, and the agency makes sure they have the right tools
to do their job," Smith said.
Looking at mobile tools such as personal digital assistants, wireless
modems and cell phones, Smith said he sees agencies approving them in ones
and twos, or eager workers might buy their own gadgets. But in general,
the mobile tool of choice is still the laptop computer.
The reason for the cautious acceptance of PDAs is twofold, according to
John Leavitt, an advisory sales specialist who handles government accounts
for IBM Corp.'s Personal Systems Group in Raleigh, N.C.
First, agencies are just beginning to explore applications for sub-notebook
devices. "I don't think everybody truly understands the power of those machines.
They think you can keep a calendar and address book, but people don't realize
the capability goes way beyond that," said Leavitt, who added that he is
in preliminary talks with at least one government agency about the possibility
of using digital notepads in the field.
Second, security is a big concern for all mobile computers — but especially
for PalmPilots and other super-portable devices. A user who checks office
e-mail with a PDA is suddenly in possession of a small, easily stolen device
carrying government data. "You can't control where that PDA goes with that
data on it," Leavitt said. Some IT departments are using passwords to ensure
only the authorized user accesses the device; others have developed standards
lists as a way of limiting the number and type of digital devices, even
privately purchased ones, being used by employees.
Security and control are two main reasons the Gartner Group Inc., a
Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, advises organizations to insist that
users access networks only via government-issued equipment. "We recommend
that if you're going to have people do work from home, don't let them use
their home PC," said Ken Dulaney, Gartner's vice president of mobile computing
in the company's San Jose, Calif., office. With home PCs, "there is...no
possible way to reliably enforce security," Dulaney said.
Security aside, IBM's Leavitt said his federal clients' main priority
was to keep laptop operations as simple as possible. "There are so many
different levels of users, agencies are going with the lowest common denominator
and making the machine as easy to use as possible." Techniques include limiting
the number of external devices, requiring that options like Ethernet adapters
be internal so as not to be lost, and buying extra AC adapters so users
can keep on working if one is lost or goes bad.
The Census Bureau's technologies management office in Suitland, Md.,
strives for simplicity by preloading applications and in some cases restricting
access to operating systems and other applications.
"We do try to make it as canned as possible," said Jane Polzer, decennial
liaison for the technologies management office. "We try to restrict folks
to a menu so they don't get out into a root directory." The technologies
management office oversees about 3,200 laptops in field offices and is deploying
9,000 more laptops for accuracy and coverage evaluation — determining the
undercount and overcount — related to the 2000 national census.
Some laptop-based Census applications are additionally password-protected,
and procedures such as remote connect, which many federal managers cited
as an area of confusion for users, are automated as much as possible, Polzer
The technology aspects of a mobile project are integrated whenever possible
into the basic training for a particular program. "The machines themselves
haven't been the biggest problem; the problems are the field problems that
workers typically have," Polzer said. "That's good news for us because it
means the tools are working."
When the tools don't work — or workers can't figure them out — users
follow a help hierarchy that leads them first to a local field leader in
close proximity, then to a regional Census office and finally to the technologies
management office. The Census 2000 project will have its own help desk.
Many federal managers say that employees should be trained to troubleshoot
their own technical problems in the field. But one Agriculture Department
pilot project is taking the opposite approach, at least for now. "If there's
trouble, we get on a plane and go help them fix it," said Dick Paden, Washington
business developer for ICES Ltd., a Minneapolis technology staffing firm
that frequently works with federal contractors. Paden is building a set
of technologically retrofitted recreational vehicles that will enable USDA
agents to bring the capabilities of a fixed service center to underserved
rural areas such as an Indian reservation in South Dakota.
The RVs have a power generator, built-in cellular communications and
two-way Inmarsat satellite service for areas where cellular coverage is
patchy, laptop computers, printers, fax machines and multimedia equipment.
Paden said that despite the plethora of systems, the USDA agents will need
no special training. "The way we've put it together, a person needs just
general computer-use knowledge. Everything is triggered through macros."
Because of that and ICES' toll-free help desk, Paden doesn't expect
to be hopping on an airplane for most problems mobile USDA workers face.
But ICES employees are charged with fixing the big problems, such as satellite
ICES delivered the first RV to the USDA in December, with six due in
the first quarter of 2000 as part of the proof of concept phase. A total
of 18 will be deployed if the project wins full approval.
Is mobile technology — ranging from a laptop to a fully configured RV
— worth the extra effort in security, training, management and support?
Thanks to the increased flexibility and improved efficiency enjoyed by a
mobile work force, the answer is nearly always yes.
"If the Department of Agriculture went out and put in a fixed facility
to service these people, they'd be facing an upfront cost of two or three
times what a vehicle costs," Paden said.