How 3 agencies are managing the move to mobile devices

Interior, ATF and GSA try to work out the details regarding infrastructure and application issues of deploying wireless technology.

This article has been updated to correct the job title of GSA's Gwynne Kostin.

The federal government is going wireless. But the process is an unsteady one, as agencies work out the details of how and when to deploy new wireless devices and applications to their personnel. Although the capability offers great potential, the devil is in the details when it comes to getting things right.

Speaking at an industry conference this month, three top officials from the Interior Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the General Services Administration discussed the steps their agencies are taking to manage the transition to a more mobile workforce. All three agencies have launched programs to deploy wireless technologies.

Interior is developing a strategy centered on three elements, said Tim Quinn, chief of the department’s Enterprise Infrastructure Division.

The first examines the ubiquity of devices. He said the department is testing iPads and, in the near future, will move onto iPhones and Andriod-based smart phones.

The second element involves back-end management with an emphasis on connecting devices either directly to the Internet or to access other back-end systems. Quinn said that the department will probably look at virtual windows technology to help accomplish this.

The final part will look at applications. The department is working with law enforcement agencies to develop tools for remote users to access Justice Department and scientific websites.

ATF also is pursuing a three-part strategy, said Rick Holgate, the organization’s assistant director for science and technology and chief information officer. The bureau wants to take a flexible approach because most of ATF’s officers work out of the office, he said. The first goal is to allow agents to use more types of mobile devices, including permitting them to use those devices for some personal tasks.

The second requirement is deployment of applications to wireless systems, while the third part of the strategy involves determining the policy implications for additional wireless devices. Among the considerations are how much freedom employees will have to introduce new applications into the network. Once these variables have been modeled, the new wireless strategy must present a more cost-effective alternative to the current policy, Holgate said.

Unlike other agencies, GSA’s role is to provide services to other federal bureaus. It does so by helping agencies move forward with a variety of technologies, such as wireless, said Gwynne Kostin, director mobile in GSA's Office of Citizen Services & Innovative Technologies.

GSA is in discussions with public agencies to identify their needs and to provide citizen-centric services via mobile devices. However, Kostin said, GSA’s efforts vary among agencies. Each organization has its own particular needs for services and applications, she said. GSA works with agencies to identify an audience to new technologies, the technologies best suited for that audience and ways to reach that group of users.

Changing back-office operations to support wireless mobility is another challenge agencies face. Interior is lagging in developing its back office to support mobility. Quinn said he would like to move the department to a mobile device management system. However, he said, there is concern that such a system could overwhelm busy system administrators. Other back-office applications that must be worked on include asset-management and records-management access from wireless devices.

ATF is looking for a technology-independent way to manage its mobile devices, Holgate said. The bureau is examining several wireless options, such as Apple devices. It is also considering sandbox technology, such as Citrix, to create a safe space to conduct enterprise work.

The bureau is also interested in content management systems. Holgate explained that wireless devices must be able to interact with other devices in the enterprise. He said that the ATF needs to create the right back-end infrastructure to achieve this capability.

GSA is working to coordinate wireless projects between 25 government agencies. Kostin noted that there was a lot of work coming from different program offices and within agencies. One of GSA’s efforts is to share good practices for wireless systems across the government.

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