Mobilizing government: Agencies struggle to move beyond strategy

Mobilizing government: Agencies struggle to move beyond strategy

Federal agencies still have work to do more than two years after the White House issued its mobile-focused Digital Government Strategy, according to a December report from the Government Accountability Office.

All 24 agencies required to comply with the strategy have made efforts to improve their digital services for those who use mobile devices, but so far much of it has been in planning rather than execution.

“Strategy is always a challenge when you’re dealing with digital technology,” said Jacob Parcell, manager of mobile programs within General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

The Digital Government Strategy, released in 2012, aims to let citizens access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime on any device; manage devices, applications and data securely and affordably; and open more government data.

“I think that what the digital strategy did is it got the ball rolling on this conversation,” said Chris Roberts, vice president of public sector at Good Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based mobile security solutions provider. “It got the government to focus on ways that it might be able to create more efficiencies, save costs and essentially execute its mission a little better.”

Some agencies are leading the way in this effort, mainly through the development of mobile websites and native apps, Parcell said. For example, the Census Bureau created two apps out of its open data. One called dwellr lets users enter preferences and then suggests the top 25 U.S. cities best suited to them. The other, Census PoP Quiz – a play on the word “population” – uses gamification elements, giving badges for every correct answer people can give about the 50 states.

Despite agencies’ best efforts to meet the strategy’s 2013 deadlines for mobile accomplishments, legitimate challenges have hindered them, Roberts said, including sequestration, continuing resolutions and midterm elections.

But the No. 1 challenge – and one that President Obama referenced in his State of the Union address Jan. 20 – is cybersecurity, he said.

“Even just a few years back, I don’t think we took security nearly as seriously,” Roberts said. “We assigned that to the Department of Defense, the FBI, Homeland Security, folks like that, but it’s become clearer and clearer that whether you’re at any department – whether it’s the [Veterans Affairs] or Labor or Commerce or housing [departments] that may not have been in a direct line with regard to national infrastructure –  that every agency has got to have security.”

Going hand in hand with security nowadays is privacy, Parcell added. For example, the Internal Revenue Service’s IRS2Go mobile app lets users check their tax returns, so the agency needs to ensure the system is not only secure, but able to maintain privacy of the data. “It’s sort of like yin and yang with privacy and security. They’re like peas in a pod,” he said.

Policy is another obstacle that started with the bring-your-own-device debate, Roberts said.

The policy issue went in three waves, he said. Initially, senior-level employees were given or had their own iPads and wanted to use them at work. The IT organizations tried to find ways to accommodate that.

The second wave involved the BlackBerry, once the device of choice among feds, and whether it would remain intact or be sold. “The question marks around BlackBerry forced many in government to look at a Plan B when it came to mobile,” he said.  

“The third wave is where we are currently with government, and that is how do I take a so-called front foot with this?” Roberts said. “How do we decrease costs, increase efficiencies and better execute our missions knowing that budgets are likely going to be shrinking and that we’re going to be asked to do more with less, and that is the real question or the right question that government should be asking right now.”

Technical challenges emerged, too. Responsive web design, or making sites that adjust to the screen size of the viewing device, gave some feds pause, Parcell said. For example, agencies had a tough time figuring out how to make charts responsive. The Department of Health and Human Services found an answer – and then it shared it.

“What HHS did was they created some code – about four or five lines of code – that makes charts mobile-friendly,” Parcell said. “The Defense Financial Accounting Service actually took this code and implemented it on their website in about two hours, and they said it saved them a bunch of time and a bunch of headaches because 5 percent of their website is charts and graphs.”

Another problem is that many mobile devices exist and in many sizes, but some agencies are limited to using only one or two. That makes testing responsive design difficult, Parcell said. To help with that, the DigitalGov team started a Federal CrowdSource Mobile Testing program. Through it, feds can volunteer to evaluate an application on a variety of devices.

Looking ahead, the government is well positioned to be more proactive with mobility, Roberts said.

“We’ve got a lot of security coming in. We’re not facing a midterm election, the budget situation is relatively stable, we’re not facing a presidential election, so I do think we’re going to have a pretty successful year when it comes to mobile,” he said.

Although agencies fell short of the digital strategy’s goals in many ways, it’s still a useful document, Parcell said.

“I think the good thing about deadlines is they put you on course to actually meet a goal, but you also have to be rethinking those goals along the way,” he said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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