The UK is banning government-built apps. Should we?

The UK is banning government-built apps. Should we?

If the government can provide a citizen service or solution through a mobile-friendly website, is there reason to offer yet another application for a user’s phone or tablet?

For Britain’s Government Digital Service, the answer is no. The GDS “banned” government development of mobile applications, the former head of design for the UK’s GDS, Ben Terrett, told GovInsider. The cost to produce and maintain applications amid constant operating system and software updates is too high and unnecessary.

Instead, Terrett said he favors responsive design websites. He argued they adapt to all users, adjust to any screen size, work on all devices and are less expensive to maintain because upgrades require recoding for a single platform.

Additionally, the mobile app boom that began with the launch of Apple’s App Store in 2008 has ended, according to Recode. Aside from Snapchat and Uber, Americans aren’t looking for new apps, and big developers are seeing a decrease in downloads.

So what does this mean for government agencies developing citizen-facing solutions?

Most of the time, federal agencies lean toward mobile web design, the General Services Administration’s Jacob Parcell told GCN.  

However, it depends on the problem an agency is trying to solve and the way users will most likely accomplish the task, Parcell, who is manager for mobile programs at the GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, said. “When you're building a digital property for a federal agency, you have to look at how are your users going to be best served by this technology,” he said.

To do so, Parcell recommended agencies understand its users’ mobile moments -- the times when someone uses a mobile device to find a solution to a problem. Agencies must determine the problems people are trying to solve on mobile devices and how quickly they are solving them.

Mobile websites are ideal for informational solutions, Parcell said. On the other hand, if the solution requires a transaction or service or leverages the technology of a mobile device, a native app could work best.

Repeat usage and a large number of active users argues for a native app. The Internal Revenue Service’s IRS2Go app, for example  -- which allows users to track tax refunds, make payments and find local tax assistance -- sees a lot of repeat use around tax season.

The likelihood of users’ connectivity may also indicate whether a native app would be more useful than a website. If a hiker at a national park is looking for campsite information but does not have internet access, an app that had previously stored the data on the device would be more appropriate.

Fred Smith, lead of the technology team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Digital Media Branch, said it isn’t a blanket-type decision. “For us, it really depends upon what we’re trying to communicate, and to whom were trying to communicate it, where they are and how we expect them to use it.”

And in terms of numbers, the CDC does see a high number of application downloads, with nearly a million launches of its Solve the Outbreak disease detective game app. “But those numbers obviously don’t compare to the roughly 1 billion page views that we get on every year,” Smith said.

To avoid the cost and time of updating apps for all the different platforms and operating systems, the CDC tries to stick to the same basic code for as many apps as possible. The overall goals, however, are to efficiently share the information and meet the objectives of the application.

“It's not a question of is it cheaper than, or more expensive than, maintaining a website,” Smith said. “The question is, is it the good, efficient, best way to communicate that content to that audience for that purpose?”

Yet cost remains a common concern. “When you talk about the federal procedures for procurement, for budget, it’s hard to get money,” Parcell said. “For a native app, it’s a little more expensive,” he added, and increased functionality only raises the cost.

Generally agencies have the tools to develop a website, but spend their resources on the user experience and design elements. “It is cheap if you build a responsive web design right, because the maintenance is just … changing the content,” Parcell said.

Nolan Jones, director of innovation at NIC, an online solution provider for government, agreed that if agencies cannot keep up with native apps -- the required maintenance, updates and a dedicated internal staff with the skills to ensure the software worked across platforms --  it could be very challenging.

“Regarding what the UK is doing there, I think they’re spot-on in a lot of ways,” Jones said. “They’re exactly right with the initial costs, and it’s a lot easier to maintain applications that are web based.”

Ultimately, Jones said, decisions should be dictated by what is best for the end user and audience.

Still, if apps “can be built using a responsive design website that works great on mobile, that's obviously going to be our first choice,” Jones said. With responsive websites, he said, “you’re going to reach everybody.”

And for agencies looking to keep up with emerging technology, the focus may shift from websites and applications to data, analytics and application programming interfaces. According to Parcell, agencies will need to be able to provide developers with the data and APIs to be easily integrated into products.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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