Cleared for takeoff: How pilot projects fast-track mobile tech

Pentagon officials are testing new technologies -- and bypassing budgetary red tape -- to learn what works best.

soldiers using mobile device

Ever seen a high-ranking military official or even an enlisted officer strutting through the Pentagon proudly brandishing a shiny new iPad? Until recently, that was an uncommon — and unofficial — sight. But times are changing as federal agencies break an enduring tradition that has put the government woefully behind technology's swiftly moving curve.

Government buzzwords do not get much hotter than mobility. Inside and outside the Beltway, agencies are launching an array of pilot projects designed to test, prove and issue the smart phones and tablet PCs that have come to define life outside the office. Backed by emerging policies from as high as the White House and Office of Management and Budget, mobile pilot projects are taking off at unprecedented rates.

Why do a mobile pilot?

To get a feel for what works for your specific organization. A test run of mobile technology can help answer a variety of questions. For example, do employees need tablet PCs for taking notes or managing data in the field, or are smart phones enough for them to stay digitally connected at all times? Who truly needs a mobile device? Which operating system is best for specific networks?

To keep up with new technology. Because they are limited deployments, pilot projects give agencies more leeway in terms of governance, funding and how they write the eventual contract. Furthermore, pilot projects can support spiral development and give agencies a chance to resolve certification and accreditation issues — one of the biggest roadblocks to rapid procurement. Once a mobile pilot project moves into production, those technology purchases are subject to acquisition regulations.

To streamline activities enterprisewide. The Defense Department is using pilot projects to coordinate security requirements and interoperability, which is particularly important as the Pentagon seeks to consolidate IT systems. In the process, DOD is improving efficiency and saving resources, according to the Defense Information Systems Agency.

To drive productivity and innovation. Given that the youngest members of the federal workforce have essentially been raised with technology, it is second nature for them to use mobile tools anytime, anywhere — including, for better or worse, for work purposes. Furthermore, pilot projects lend themselves to collaboration and input from team members — a process that fosters creative thinking and problem-solving.

— Amber Corrin

The test runs allow organizations to evaluate new mobile technologies unencumbered by the red tape and budget line items that IT acquisition typically comprises. They also help agency leaders get a better idea of requirements and what works for their respective offices.

"Lessons learned from pilots reduce programmatic risk prior to committing to the execution of full production rollout, increase our chances for success on the first attempt, allow better allocation of increasingly constricted resources and enable reinvestment into the development of more productivity-enhancing solutions," said Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a Defense Department spokesman.

DOD might not be the first agency to launch mobile pilot projects, but it is arguably the most aggressive. Furthermore, officials used a mobility strategy released in June 2012 as a springboard for its latest milestone — an implementation plan with a framework and guidelines for expanding mobile device use at DOD, issued in February.

According to CIO Teri Takai, pilot projects were crucial to the plan's development. "The 50 pilot programs we have out there today are really the basis for the strategy and for the implementation plan," she said. "Those pilots were a great way to get a view of what the needs were. Then the question is: How do you take care of those needs? How do you use those as an example in the future?"

Takai's commitment to mobile pilot projects illustrates their importance in identifying requirements for introducing new technology, saving scarce money and improving productivity.

"A lot of these pilot programs are being driven by the senior-most executives at agencies," said Jeff Ait, director of public-sector business at Good Technology, a company that has been involved in DOD's pilot projects. "General officers get iPads for Christmas, bring them in and want to carry this cool device instead of an 8-pound laptop."

He added that officials often launch pilot projects for email and quickly find that users are hungry for a wide range of applications that can turn mobile devices into full-fledged productivity tools.

Staying ahead of adversaries

It is not always clear skies for pilot projects. Authorities sometimes get muddled, and the glacially slow processes for security accreditation and other formalities render some tools obsolete before they can be adopted. Indeed, program managers hope the pilot process will shine a light on the antiquated policies that inhibit progress.

"When we first started this, we had policies that predated smart devices by decades and prevented us from using the technology, but it didn't prevent our adversaries from using it," said Michael McCarthy, director of operations at the Army Brigade Modernization Command. "It's a gradual process though. Any time you're changing the status quo, it makes people nervous."

McCarthy has helped push through some of DOD's most ambitious mobile pilot projects. In fact, a number of the devices the Army is testing have been put to use in military classrooms or sent abroad to troops in the field.

What started with 200 devices could expand to as many as 25,000 tablet PCs and smart phones across the Army by the end of the fiscal year, McCarthy said.

"As doctrine changes, new tactics, techniques and procedures come out, new administrative forms, new training content. You have to be able to keep up and make that available," he said. "Our focus has been to get the processes into place to do the governance and certification to [ensure] we're current. It's not showy, but it's setting conditions for the not-so-distant future when the smart device becomes as common throughout the Army as the laptop computer or BlackBerry. We're seeing an evolution of technology."

But that technology does not come cheap, which is a top concern for agency officials trying to determine how to integrate mobility into their operations. Most insiders agree that mobile devices improve productivity and, therefore, justify the investment, but the unclear path for securely adopting the technology is compounded by budget pressures.

"Most people don't realize we never have had a budget for these projects," McCarthy said. "We've had to beg, borrow and steal — and that was by design."

He added that his team largely avoided the expenses associated with big-ticket projects by using an agile development process. "We were told to see what we could do with what we had," he said. "I never sat down and totaled how much we've spent on mobile pilots, but it's probably less than $6 million. Something like this in the traditional model never would have made it out of the gate, but it's proven very effective, and it's caused us to be very careful about where we spend our resources."

Resolving the non-tech issues

Nevertheless, mobile pilot projects are not just about the technology. According to some experts, they have more to do with policies and governance — elements that can, fortunately, require less upfront investment to change.

Teri Takai

Teri Takai, DOD CIO

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for example, a test run of a bring-your-own-device policy has already attracted 350 volunteers and a tablet PC pilot project will soon move into production, but technology was far from the only consideration.

"We spent the vast majority of our resources not on technical or technological issues, but on non-tech things like rules of behavior, policy, security, privacy, records and working with local union chapters," NRC CIO Darren Ash said. "As we did that we benefited because solutions out there continue to mature, but since we've focused on the long-run issues, the technology itself is less of an issue."

In what turned out to be a valuable lesson, Ash and his team paused to assess how the tablet PC project was going, obtain feedback and make tweaks before heading into production. That experience reflects another key tenet of mobile pilot projects: the importance of communicating with other organizations and sharing the lessons learned along the way.

"We talk to a wide variety of agencies, and in each instance, we learn from them and they learn from us," Ash said. "All of us have an interest in doing this, all of us have our own approaches, but there are a lot of mistakes we don't all have to repeat."

That concept will be crucial in the coming months as DOD prepares to award a contract for its mobile device management infrastructure — a step that will spur adoption and help push pilot projects into production, said Tom Suder, president of Mobilegov.

"Pilot programs are best done involving all elements, not in stealth mode," Suder said. "You want to involve all the stakeholders." At DOD, he added, "a lot of pressure will be on them. It's all up to them to execute now."

"There's a lot of work within the entire DOD, not just the Army, to leverage the insight we've had in these smart phone efforts from the past couple years," McCarthy said. "And I think you're going to see some things that are going to be universal throughout DOD and probably throughout other departments as we continue to press forward."

Pilots that have panned out

The Army put 200 mobile test devices in the hands of senior leaders in October 2012 and used soft certifications instead of Common Access Cards for identity management. The program is set to expand to 2,500 devices at the Army Training and Doctrine Command, McCarthy said. And if the budget is right, another 2,500 devices might be fielded on a pilot basis, he added.

The Air Force started planning its electronic flight bag program at the end of 2011. It swapped large, heavy flight bags full of maps, manuals, navigation materials and flight plans for tablet PCs that contain up-to-date, more quickly accessible data. The devices improve efficiency, cut down on paperwork and can also be used for functions typically performed manually, such as takeoff calculations, according to Pickart.

Outside DOD, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives began testing expanded use of mobile devices as far back as 2010. At ATF, iPads have been used to explore email as a service, video content management, surveillance and other uses for the agency’s inherently off-site work.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is close to adopting tablet PCs after a pilot project demonstrated the benefits of allowing field inspectors to quickly access and share data. NRC is also testing a bring-your-own-device program with the help of 350 volunteers. Ash said pilot projects played a crucial role in enabling NRC’s workforce to go mobile.

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