The other side of mobility: Connecting with constituents

Federal agencies are getting serious about serving constituents through mobile devices.

As some see it, they have little choice. On the one hand, the federal government’s open data policy requires them to make “information resources accessible, discoverable, and usable by the public.” On the other hand, tight or shrinking budgets make it difficult for agencies to invest more in expanding access to data or services.

For example, the Veteran Affairs Department recently took a step forward with its customer service by releasing guidelines for developers and companies so that they can create new apps for inclusion in the agency’s New Models of Care (NMOC) program.

Under the NMOC paradigm, veterans can get care at home instead of at a VA hospital, savings the agency money and helping the patient be more comfortable. Recently, the agency started testing an app that addressed post-traumatic stress disorder, letting veterans screen, track and manage their symptoms.

Recently, the agency started testing an app that addressed post-traumatic stress disorder, letting veterans screen, track, and handle their symptoms. It’s part of a bigger plan at the VA to use technology to improve veteran care, according to Ndidi Mojay, a VA spokeswoman.

“Nearly ubiquitous and powerful mobile technology has allowed us to continue to create veteran-centered care, in which we realize that one size does not fit all, and we can enable veterans, caregivers, and healthcare providers to tailor interventions to the circumstances to the lives of every individual veteran,” she says.

Of course, developing and creating an app isn’t easy. It requires new skill sets, technology and focus. Something as simple as version control can derail a project. For instance, when an agency does release an app, it must become vigilant about checking for and notifying constituents about fraudulent apps that mimic the interface, functionality and even names of agency-developed and authorized apps.

This is not a problem that agencies have had to worry about when developing apps for their own employees.

“While it’s easier to manage which apps are being pushed out to employees, there’s really no way to make sure constituents download the right apps,” agrees Brent Iadarola, Frost and Sullivan’s research director for its mobile and wireless group.

IT managers also must carefully examine usage patterns of apps so that they can identify problems or issues immediately, said David Eads, founder of Mobile Strategy Partners.

“You’re looking for technical issues and user issues,” he said. “You might also have a user issue that’s manifesting itself as a technical issue, so it’s imperative to measure and monitor constituents’ movement through the workflow.”

For example, are they abandoning the app at a specific point or spending too long on an action that should move very quickly? Even statistics about how often constituents are using an app can give you good insight into its successfulness, said Eads.

Finally, agencies need to remember that education is a key part of any good external mobile strategy. Constituents need to learn how to use the apps and have someplace to turn if they need help downloading or using the app. They should also be made aware of any personal information collected and stored.

According to a September 2012 Pew Internet Project study, 30 percent of all app users have uninstalled an app when they learned it was collecting personal information they didn’t want to share, and 54 percent of app users decided not to install an app due to the amount of personal information they needed to share in order to use it.

However, the benefits of an external app strategy can be huge. The VA is a good example. To date, the VA’s post-traumatic stress disorder app – PTSD Coach, which is available for iOS and Android – has been downloaded more than 100,000 times across 74 countries, according to the VA.

Mobile is truly changing the way the agency is interacting with and providing care for its constituents, says Mojay. “We are developing technologies that give our patients more access to their personal health information while on the go, tools to help them manage their care, and greater two-way communication with their VA health care teams.”