Why the federal government must plan now for mobility

Slow adoption of mobile can create the very risks that agencies have gone slow to avoid, Nolan Jones argues.

Nolan Jones

For every enterprise – including federal government agencies – the shift of critical mass from PCs to mobile has changed all the rules of engagement in just a few short years. More than half of American adults have smartphones and more a third use tablets, according to recent research. That means we are quickly approaching the point where more citizens will access government websites and services via mobile devices than through any other means.

It is easy to discern why mobile devices have become so pervasive. The always-available access of mobility and the overflow of work into our personal lives have pushed these devices to the forefront. Mobility has become an expectation.

Because government has intense, inherent security needs, it has lagged behind the private sector in formulating and implementing mobility plans. But the longer federal agencies postpone going mobile, the greater their risk that constituents will perceive them as trailing in providing basic services.

Mobility's benefits are not limited to good customer service and end-user convenience. Citizens, recognizing that mobility makes their lives and the businesses they deal with more efficient, understand that mobility also will streamline government and reduce its costs. That's important in an environment of shrinking government budgets.

Government agencies also face internal "go-mobile" pressures. Employees who come from the private sector or from college are accustomed to mobile use and expect to be able to leverage these devices to perform their jobs. When the phone issued at work is highly restricted or lacks broad capabilities, government employees frequently use unauthorized tools or turn to their own smartphones to create on-the-job efficiencies.

These practices inadvertently introduce the very risks agencies have tried to avoid by moving slowly into mobile adoption. Employees who use personal mobile devices to perform work may be storing government data without encryption or other security technologies. If the worker's smartphone or tablet is lost or stolen, goes in for repair or travels outside the country with the employee, the agency cannot easily safeguard data stored on the device.

Further, as Americans' public and private lives continue to merge and employees increasingly use personal phones for work-related purposes, government agencies are encountering questions about what authority they may have over employee devices. Say, for example, that a public employee has both government data and photos of her daughter's wedding on her personal mobile device. If that device is deemed insecure, and the affected agency wants to wipe it, what happens to the photos? Who has the right to wipe the phone, and is the employee entitled to prevent it?

The reality is that people are doing business on their mobile devices. Almost every government entity faces the resulting security, efficiency and constituency demand issues, and the speed of technological change permits no time for them to overanalyze. How agencies navigate through the concerns will be increasingly difficult unless they commit to going mobile, put a plan in place and execute that plan.

An approach that may help an agency formulate a plan for addressing mobile is to prepare one or more surveys to help identify mobile priorities. Without being complex or overly broad, surveys will help agencies determine how employees and citizens want to use their mobile devices to interact and access information. Based on survey results, agencies can prioritize their mobile activities – whether mobile device management, website accessibility, services to mobile-enable or something else – to respond to employees' and constituents' pressing needs.

For government, mobile implementation is unquestionably difficult. Yet, it also is essential. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Going mobile will require a great deal of thought and preparation. But with boldness, agility and a thoughtful approach to planning and surveying, agencies can leverage mobility's benefits to streamline workflow, enhance security and better meet constituent and employee needs.

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