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Government in the Mobile Era
Posted On May 31, 2012
Information Technology (IT) departments in all organizations—including federal government agencies—are grappling with a need to deliver information via mobile and wireless devices while simultaneously taking steps to assure security at the enterprise and data level, respecting the privacy concerns of individuals. A document released May 23, 2012, Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People, reveals the Obama administration strategy to enable citizens to find the services they need across government programs, “anytime, anywhere, and on any device.”

Within the next 6 months, the following actions must take place:

  • General Services Administration (GSA) must establish a Digital Services Innovation Center to work with agencies “to establish shared solutions and training to support infrastructure and content needs across the Federal Government (e.g., source code sharing tools, video captioning, language translation, usability and accessibility testing, web hosting, and security architectures).”
  • Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is to create a Digital Advisory Group to help agencies identify best practices for making government data more accessible.
  • GSA must craft a governmentwide contract vehicle for mobile and wireless services.
  • The Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council, composed of the CIOs from federal agencies, must issue a “bring your own device” (BYOD) plan that provides the security necessary to protect government data as government workers—like those in the private sector—use their own personal computers, tablets, and smartphones for work.

The strategy lays out 29 goals for agencies, including rationalizing the number of top-level .gov domains; the federal government currently has about 1,800. There is a 1-year deadline for most initiatives described in the document, but as part of an effort to create more transparency within the public sector, agencies have just 90 days to create webpages that track their progress toward goals.

Making Government Work for Americans

The Obama administration has been working to get government to work smarter through technology, including innovative use of the internet and social media to engage citizens and give them access to government data. The new digital strategy just released steps up the effort to increase government efficiency, making government information open to all, particularly through “coordinated delivery of federal services on mobile devices."

Firstly, the administration has set an ambitious timeline for making digital government information accessible to citizens from a variety of devices. According to a report from Pew Internet, 88% of American adults have a cellphone, 57% have a laptop, and 19% have a tablet computer; 63% go online wirelessly with one of those devices. IDC forecasts that between 2010 and 2015 the number of mobile internet users in the U.S. will grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

Recognizing the need for federal employees to be able to use mobile devices for work, Digital Government demands a streamlined procurement process for agencies to expedite purchase of these devices. Centralizing procurement is but one of several measures being taken to bring down the $1.2 billion each year that the government spends on mobile devices and service contracts for its 1.5 million users

Lastly, this new digital strategy is meant to spur innovation and service improvements through the release of raw data in open, machine-readable formats, allowing the private sector to create new tools, conduct research to analyze data, and develop new products utilizing the government data. The hope is that this will fuel new billion dollar industries in the coming years, just as the release of GPS and weather data has done, engaging the public and America’s entrepreneurs as partners in the process.

One issue not addressed in the strategy is the digital spectrum that will be stretched to the limits if these forecasts for mobile devices are accurate. On May 16, 2012, Larry Strickling, chief of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said, “that the government needs to come up with a new paradigm for freeing up government spectrum, saying the problem with NTIA’s own report on a timetable and cost—10 years and $18 billion—was too long and too costly.”

Designing for Openness

The road map presented in Digital Government prods federal agencies to use cutting-edge mobile and web technologies to develop better services for the citizens. At the core of the open data strategy is the creation of application programming interfaces (APIs) that present raw government data to the public, ultimately replacing platform-specific presentations, such as websites and PDF files. This will facilitate raw data streaming, allowing developers to manipulate the data and create sophisticated graphics, conducting research and developing new products along the way.

Within 3 months, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel’s office will issue government-wide policies for streaming data from APIs and all new federal IT systems will have to follow those policies within 12 months. By May 2013, GSA must update to include government APIs. (The GSA budget for FY2013 places as an essential element of its Open Government priority. Last year, initial congressional negotiations cut the budget for by 75%. Congress has yet to pass next year’s budget.)

Beginning in July, the Presidential Innovation Fellows initiative “will pair top innovators from the private sector, non-profits, or academia with top innovators in government to collaborate on game-changing solutions” to work on five projects, including MyGov, which will “reimagine the relationship between the federal government and its citizens” and Blue Button for America, which will focus on developing apps and other tools concerning individuals’ access to personal health records.

VanRoekel predicts greater access to real-time data and government services online. “Rethinking the way that we build solutions…so that the private sector can access these features,” said VanRoekel. “Open data is the new default… He promised to unlock data … and publish it for developers who want to use the information to develop mobile applications.”

Innovate and Save Money at the Same Time

In the current, tough budgetary environment, the administration is looking for ways to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse. In terms of the digital strategy, this translates to minimizing duplicative efforts across agencies, consolidating, and sharing IT resources. At the same time, it is demanding that IT departments work to meet the expectations of agency workers and the public. Expectation levels are constantly being raised, the pace of change is accelerating, and what the public receives from the private sector in terms of access and innovation it should get from its government as well.

CIO VanRoekel anticipates that a governmentwide contract vehicle for mobile and wireless procurement could save more than 10% off what federal agencies currently spend. A move to certify approved mobile devices, allowing agencies to select devices to use could significantly shorten the selection cycle for each agency.

Over the past few years, agencies have worked with contractors to build or collaborate on public-facing apps, but they have not collaborated on internal agency apps that would enable staff to work smarter. Agencies are now required to “optimize at least two existing priority customer-facing services for mobile use and publish a plan for improving additional existing services.”

It remains to be seen how these additional requirements will affect individual agency FY2013 budgets, in particular at GSA where much of this work will have to be funded by a Congress not in the mood to provide increased spending for any project, no matter how laudable. 

How Are We Doing?

As OMB issued the Digital Government document, it makes sense to look at that office’s track record with regard to federal agency IT management and reform. On Dec. 9, 2010, OMB issued its 25 Point implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management designed to “fundamentally change how the government buys and manages IT.” On April 26 of this year, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a Report to Congressional Requesters on Information Technology Reform (GAO-12-461) declaring in the subtitle of the study Progress Made; More Needs to Be Done to Compete Actions and Measure Results. Apparently, OMB reported greater progress in its December 2011 update than GAO determined in its review. GAO admonished OMB for not having “established performance measures for evaluating the results of most of the IT reform initiatives” or timeframes for completion, stating that “until outcome-oriented performance measures are in place for each of the action items, OMB will be limited in its ability to evaluate progress that has been made and to determine whether or not the initiative is achieving its intended results.”

The Digital Government initiative affects every agency and how it will interact with the public in the future. Greater transparency is required of the agencies to demonstrate progress toward goals; overall progress needs to be measured in terms of outcomes. Rather than being solely information- and customer-centric, the focus should be usage-centric. Understanding how information is used, by different people at different times will help to keep government nimble, open to change, advanced tools, and new techniques for interacting with Americans throughout their lives.

Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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