Agencies' mobile question: How to get there from here?

After years of resistance, the federal government is finally embracing the move to mobile devices with the implacability of a glacier grinding its way down to the sea. With increasing momentum, agencies are launching pilot programs or looking at their options for acquiring and using smart phones and tablet computers.

But with a huge variety of commercial options available, government organizations must make a number of decisions and trade-offs to get the capabilities that best suit their needs, members of a panel of industry experts said Dec. 7 at the Government Mobility Forum in Washington D.C.

Many agencies are testing the waters before taking the plunge, said Tim Hoechst, chief technology officer for Agilex. He said his company is helping Apple increase its presence in the federal mobile market, with the iPad getting the most attention. 


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Federal IT managers are facing pressure from both their directors and staffs to adopt a broader range of devices beyond traditional BlackBerrys, Hoechst said. Agilex is working with organizations such as the Defense Department to better understand the implications of deploying and managing large numbers of mobile devices. He added that every Cabinet-level department in the government is going down this path.

But while agencies are adopting mobile strategies, they also need to consider a host of other questions, such as usability, said Michael Jackson, head of health care solutions at Adobe. Programs and applications such as Facebook are intuitive to use, and Adobe wants to take this experience and apply it across multiple devices and capabilities, he added.

This seamless user experience has three areas: engagement, efficiency and measuring effectiveness. Engagement is a measure of how much people like to use a device or application, while effectiveness focuses on the back-end systems necessary to store and provide user data, Jackson said. Finally, analytics are necessary to measure how effective these platforms and applications are. By using these three areas as guidelines, federal agencies can lay a foundation for providing an effective mobile service, he said.

The government’s progress with mobility and mobile applications is similar to the early days of the World Wide Web, said Charles Onstott, chief technology officer for Homeland and Civilian Solutions at SAIC. Like its early Web predecessors, the “Mobile 1.0” world is focused on applications and devices. For example, the military is using mobile applications to provide paperless manuals and training materials for troops in the field.

Above all, although agency personnel and their superiors might want mobile devices and services, their organization’s infrastructure might not be up to the job, Onstott warned. Besides infrastructure, there is also the question of budgeting, or the lack of money that is affecting many agencies. He said that tight finances will be a major barrier as government organizations seek to acquire mobile devices and applications.

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