Behind the app: Integrating mobile into the enterprise
- By Paul McCloskey
- Jun 29, 2015
For agencies developing responsive mobile apps, design and usability are the most visible characteristics of a layered experience for the citizen and agency both. But developers must also consider how the app will integrate with an agency’s back-end infrastructure over time.
“There’s a lot of focus going on about ‘Is this app easy to use?’ ‘Are people happy with the way it works?’” said Mark Headd, technical evangelist at Accela, a firm that helps developers create civic apps. “That’s important, but as governments start to use more of these apps, we need to understand how it affects a customer service agent in a department having to answer a caller’s question. That’s a harder problem to solve.”
He said the solution involves making sure highly skilled employees are available to help the people who really need it. “If I’m a government administrator, I’d much rather have my high-value resources deal with a call from a person who’s just lost food benefits than have them deal with a call about trash pickup Wednesday or Thursday,” he said.
By addressing basic requests or questions, mobile apps can help agencies make the best use of costlier staff resources, he said.
Those decisions also depend on maintaining an ongoing analysis of traffic coming into the agency’s call center. “What I think governments are not doing enough of is looking across the enterprise and asking, ‘Are we pushing these things to the top because we know people are calling and we want to allow them to self-serve more efficiently?’” Headd said.
However, analytics about the performance of government apps and call centers often require a level of back-end systems integration that not all agencies possess, analysts say.
“Government has put some good apps out there,” said Alan Webber, a research director at IDC Government Insights. “The problem is that there is seldom a back-end system to support the applications. What’s missing are the customer relationship management-type systems that will allow them to actually manage the application.”
The lack of CRM stands in the way of offering apps with more transactional features, such as those that enable people to schedule a picnic area at a local park or check a person’s name and address against a tax database, he said.
Some governments are bridging the gap, however. Riverside, Calif., for example, operates a set of back-end systems using Oracle’s Siebel CRM tool, the company’s SPL customer-care software and permitting system Permits Plus. Together they “eliminate a lot of paperwork and save a lot of time,” Riverside’s Chief Innovation Officer Lea Deesing said.
Even so, the city wants to streamline its app offerings even further. Riverside currently has seven public-facing 311 apps and is considering consolidating them to better manage 311 traffic and stay on top of the inevitable codebase updates.
The city’s app suite includes a 311 mobile app through which people submit 600 service requests monthly; an e-services app that residents use to send requests via the city’s website; and internal apps, including a graffiti abatement tracker used by the city’s maintenance crew.
“Our next step is to take an inventory of all of our apps and determine if citizens would be better suited with one app that does it all rather than having all these individual downloads that they have to do for each piece of functionality they want,” Deesing said.
Colorado has been building its back end by setting up a CRM platform for the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing’s Program Eligibility and Application Kit.
PEAK enables state residents to check their eligibility for Medicaid and other health services via a mobile app. It has helped automate a process that used to take 45 days, said Antoinette Taranto, the department’s chief client officer.
Before it launched the website and app, the department had been fielding about 5,000 calls a day. “We went from a heavy paper process to all of a sudden having 60 percent online,” Taranto said. About a third of the online users were accessing the website via a mobile device, she added.
In developing the app, the department looked at statistics for its call center to determine the top reasons people were contacting it, she said. Callers were mostly pursuing five questions that were conducive to self-service, including asking for a medical card or updating their eligibility information and status.
“We took those five things and put them in the mobile app,” Taranto said.
Today, Medicaid clients in Colorado can update current income or job changes. If they qualify for programs that require paying a fee, they can use their mobile device’s camera to take a photo of a check or credit card and upload the necessary payment information.
“It’s really given consumers a lot of flexibility and control, and it streamlines the administrative side,” Taranto said.
‘The long tail’: App maintenance
Although government agencies are making progress on building more mature mobile apps, few are tackling what some say is a potentially costlier problem: maintaining all those apps.
“What’s happened is that agencies and commercial entities now have dozens of apps,” said Brian Paget, technical director for content and analytics at Adobe. “They’re realizing [that] while it’s relatively inexpensive to build an app once, it’s much more expensive to maintain that app over the long run. That’s where the long tail is.”
The task of maintaining mobile apps mirrors a challenge that surfaced about a decade ago during the evolution of Web content management tools, Paget said.
“If you look back at how we used to maintain websites, you would write HTML code,” he said. “Then if you wanted to publish your story on the website, you’d call the developer to put it on the site.”
The same problem exists today in the app content arena. “When agencies get to the maintenance cycle, they still need a developer to maintain the content,” Paget said. “The job of mobile administrators is how to centralize the management of app content and figure [out] how to get internal business users to do that. That’s a sea change.”
And making that change requires an ongoing evolution. “The next level of maturity is to make the maintenance on those applications a lot more efficient and make sure we embed analytics into these apps, so that we understand patterns of utilization that we need to improve on,” he said.
“Mobile applications can be a legacy system, too, if we don’t have an easy way to continue to maintain [them],” he added. “You don’t want to build the next generation of legacy applications that happen to be mobile friendly.”