Woman stands by the windows holding a tablet and phone.

Why Government Needs a Mobile-First Strategy

26 Mar 2018 by Debbie Malone

This article originally appeared on June 6, 2017, and has been revised to bring our readers the most up-to-date technology information.

It’s no secret that U.S. agencies, especially in the federal space, are behind the technology curve. And if they don’t catch up soon, it could jeopardize the integrity of our government systems, our national security, and the personal data of millions of government workers and constituents. Mobilizing the workforce and applications could provide the best solution.

Government IT needs a refresh.

According to the 2017 U.S. State and Federal Government Cybersecurity Report by SecurityScorecard, government received one of the lowest security scores of all industries surveyed.

That’s because many agencies rely on outdated technology that can’t keep up with today’s cyberthreats. This has contributed to a growing number of security incidents that have eroded public trust, which Pew Research Center reports is already a problem.

In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows federal agencies spend more than 75% of their IT budgets on quick fixes for legacy systems, leaving little to no room for innovation and only resolving problems temporarily.

Legacy IT systems can’t adequately scale to modernize constituent services either. Consumers in the private sector are accustomed to intuitive, easy-to-use apps they can access from their mobile devices — anywhere, anytime — and they expect to interface with the public sector the same way.

But slow and inefficient computing infrastructure is a severe impediment to delivery of public services. And that extends to employee productivity as well — a problem that’s amplified for government fieldworkers without a way to connect remotely to critical systems.

What’s worse, this vital issue is deterring an emerging and highly skilled millennial workforce from a sector that can’t compete with private industry on pay. And the skills these digital natives bring to the market are desperately needed to support government innovation and critical data security efforts.

In an interview with FedScoop, Dave Shive, Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the General Services Administration, emphasized the need to cultivate a tech-savvy worker base. “If you don’t modernize your workforce, you don’t modernize their skills and their capabilities, you create great risk for your organization because they can’t maintain the things that you’ve transformed to,” he says.

Results from 2007 to 2017
Figure 1

Despite that, the percentage of full-time federal employees under age 29 has been in decline since 2011, according to federal employment reports from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, as Figure 1 shows.

Equipping the government workforce with modern, mobile technologies — and modern service delivery apps — as part of a larger digital transformation strategy, addresses all of these issues.

Benefits of a mobile-first strategy

The latest mobile phones, tablets and laptops are more stable, secure and energy-efficient than the technology of yesteryear. They’re easy to integrate because they’re interoperable with a wide range of apps and other devices.

And because newer devices are still supported by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), they continue to receive the most up-to-date security patches and enhancements. This makes modern mobile devices a highly secure and cost-effective option for equipping the workforce.

Rich Nockels, a senior manager of product management at Insight, agrees. “Modern smartphones, tablets and laptops provide today’s government and public sector employees the ability to effectively perform their duties no matter where they are, with the performance they expect and the security that IT demands,” he says.

Mobility provides other benefits as well. The state of Hawaii went paperless in 2015. It equipped public employees with mobile devices and moved to using electronic signatures on digitized forms.

Route Fifty reported that the initiative has simplified document processing across the eight main islands. It has also resulted in significant cost savings, productivity boosts, document tracking improvements and stronger security measures.

When Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington, D.C., kicked off the 8th Annual Potholepalooza — a six-week campaign to fix the city’s potholes — the district had a plan to engage citizens in a whole new way.

Typically, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) hires additional repair crews for the duration of the campaign to fill potholes within 48 hours of being reported. What was different about the 2016 event was the new technology DDOT implemented.

Work crews were able to use mobile devices with advanced mapping technology to confirm when jobs were completed and snap pictures of the repairs. The devices were connected to DDOT’s live service request database so citizens could then see the updated repair status within an hour by checking an interactive map on the department’s website.

The Executive Office of the Mayor reported that DDOT received and met more than 2,000 requests and repaired more than 16,700 potholes in total during the 2016 event.

In another example, the U.S. Army gained greater agility in setting up and moving command posts and Tactical Operations Centers (TOCs) by broadening its use of wireless networks, eliminating the need for heavy cabling.

Lt. Col. Mark Henderson spoke with Federal News Radio about the results and shared an example of why the mobility we take for granted every day is mission-critical in the field.

“A soldier that had a question about something that he was doing actually picked up his laptop from where he was sitting [and] walked from one end of the TOC all the way to the other end of the TOC. He was still connected, and he was still doing what it was he needed to do,” says Henderson.

“By virtue of the fact that he was able to operate wirelessly versus connected to a wire, the amount of time that was lost to provide mission support was reduced to a much more negligible amount. … And that right there is truly disruptive and game-changing technology,” Henderson adds.

State and local government employees who serve in the field benefit from mobility as well. Route Fifty reported that social workers in Washington, D.C., were previously unable to access or update case information remotely. Instead, they had to update and review cases during their frequent trips to and from the office.

After the development of a foster care app, the district’s social workers could securely access cases via their mobile devices, enabling them to work much more efficiently and receive data in real time.

Must-have mobile device features

In recent years, 2-in-1 and 3-in-1 devices have grown in popularity — and for good reason. While the power of a laptop is necessary for some tasks, others only require the simplistic functionality of a tablet to connect to the internet, data or communication apps with a touch or a swipe — no keyboard needed. A multifunctional device can offer the best of both worlds.

Although these kinds of laptops offer revolutionary features, they may not be right for every team. To find the device best suited to your employees’ needs, you should evaluate and prioritize which features are most important to productivity and efficiency for your unique work environment.

Most modern devices have a lightweight design and long battery life, as well as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and LTE connectivity — features that are indespensable to workers on the go, who don’t have easy access to a power source.

A large, high-definition touch screen with inking capabilities can also facilitate more efficient fieldwork. And don’t forget to consider whether front- or rear-facing cameras will be beneficial in enabling workers to take photos for documentation or for videoconferencing.

Devices with smartphone capabilities that have multiple SIM card slots make it easy for employees to keep work and personal calls and texts separate, while also reducing the total number of devices workers have to carry — meaning fewer endpoints for agencies to manage.

In more rugged work environments, devices that could potentially be exposed to dirt, moisture, wear and tear should be resistant to dust and water and able to take a hit. The best tools for these conditions are those that have passed military standards testing for durability. Public safety workers and first responders, in particular, can benefit from these tougher designs.

Security is always the highest priority when dealing with government data. Integrated hardware and software encryption is a must. Devices with biometric authentication features such as iris scanners and fingerprint recognition have become more affordable and are now widely available. Robust security features like these are crucial to preventing data breaches when devices are lost or stolen.

The operating system of your chosen device, whether it’s iOS, Windows 10 or Chrome OS, must be able to support the mission-critical apps your employees use every day. It should also deliver unimpeded access and support for any cloud data storage solutions you might be using.

And be sure it can be supported by your chosen mobile device management platform so that you don’t run into problems when it’s time to deploy new apps or security updates.

Last, but not least, it’s important to think about what kinds of accessories employees might need to maximize their mobile productivity gains. From docking stations, external high-definition displays, power supplies and laptop bags to keyboards, mice, touch-screen compatible pens and barcode scanners, don’t underestimate the value they can bring.

The right accessories can be leveraged to simplify inventory management, speed data processing and reporting, improve delivery of constituent services, and more.

Technology that empowers workers to be more agile and mobile is also a key ingredient to attracing millennial workers. And it can enable better citizen engagement and public service delivery like the solutions implemented in Hawaii and Washington, D.C.

“More and more government and public sector employers are seeing the value in having their employees armed with secure, high-performance mobile solutions,” says Insight’s Nockels. “This allows them to interact with constituents face to face, in real time, making them more efficient and effective.”

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