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Use your own smartphone — and get paid to do it

Aug. 20, 2012 - 07:30AM   |  
As early as this week, the administration will be issuing guidance on how to launch and promote “bring your own device” - or BYOD - programs, in which employees agree to use their own smartphones and tablets to conduct work-related calls, emails and other tasks.
As early as this week, the administration will be issuing guidance on how to launch and promote “bring your own device” - or BYOD - programs, in which employees agree to use their own smartphones and tablets to conduct work-related calls, emails and other tasks. ()

Federal employees are gradually using their own smartphones and tablets for work. But few, if any, are getting reimbursed for that cost.

As a result, many feds with government-issued smartphones are reluctant to give them up.

But that may soon change.

As early as this week, the administration will be issuing guidance on how to launch and promote “bring your own device” — or BYOD — programs, in which employees agree to use their own smartphones and tablets to conduct work-related calls, emails and other tasks.

That guidance will include a model policy, obtained by Federal Times, that agencies can use to reimburse employees for a portion of their monthly costs.

In short, some agencies are concluding it may make good business sense to pay employees each month to ditch their government-issued BlackBerrys and use instead their personal mobile devices for work.

The state of Delaware is doing this — and saving money — and many federal information technology executives are giving the idea a close look.

“People get hung up on not wanting to reimburse users because the government would essentially be paying for their personal [cellphone] use, as well, [but] we are asking them [employees] to infringe on their personal device and use it for state business,” said Bill Hickox, chief operating officer of Delaware’s Department of Technology & Information.

The state has saved $35,000, or 30 percent of its wireless costs, since launching a BYOD program last spring at Hickox’s department. So far, about 200 state employees are participating in the program, and Hickox expects as many as half of the state’s 1,000 BlackBerry users to join in once the program goes statewide.

The program works like this: Employees who return their state-owned BlackBerrys are eligible to receive reimbursements of $40 a month for their personal phone and data costs. The state saves money, and the employees have an incentive to part with their government-issued device, Hickox said.

The state pays about $80 a month per government-issued BlackBerry, so the savings to the state are half.

“If we’re going to save 50 percent for every device that gets turned in, we want as many devices turned in as possible,” Hickox said. “What the state is doing is sharing the savings with the employee.”

For Delaware employees, reimbursements are not taxable because they are a bona fide employment expense, Hickox said.

Reimbursements are paid with funding set aside for buying state devices, said Jeff Savin, controller for Delaware’s Department of Technology & Information. Savin said managing the reimbursements has not created added burdens for employees.

“It can be thought of as paying a different vendor, and paying that vendor less money,” Savin said. “It’s nice when it’s a win on both sides.”

The government estimates it has about 1.5 million active mobile and wireless accounts and spends about $1.2 billion annually.

Some federal chief information officers — including Equal Employment Opportunity Commission CIO Kimberly Hancher — are considering the idea of a reimbursement program.

“I know that it’s going to take lawyers and financial CFO-type people to figure out whether it’s OK and what the framework is,” Hancher said. “I’m interested in getting a proposed framework, and then they can say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ My thinking is, let’s get something in writing to frame the issue in a way that some decision-makers can deal with.”

Hickox has contributed a reimbursement policy template for federal agencies to use as part of a new BYOD guidance due out this week. The guidance, developed by the federal Chief Information Officers Council and an advisory group, will be based on lessons learned and case studies.

There are some legal issues associated with reimbursement that agencies will have to sort out.

Agencies can reimburse employees for making work-related calls on their personal phones, according to a 2001 decision by the Government Accountability Office.

And there are a few examples of this. The Energy Department’s Western Area Power Administration, for example, reimburses employees for work-related calls on their personal cellphones, but they must be itemized, said spokeswoman Lisa Meiman. However, the agency does not reimburse employees for data costs.

A flat-rate reimbursement — such as that used by Delaware — may be possible, the GAO ruled, but only if agencies can show the benefits of a flat rate. And in such cases, GAO advised agencies to get specific legislative authority from Congress first. The concern is that agencies would be using appropriated funds that may pay for employees’ personal use of their phones.

How it would work

If agencies choose to adopt the template as is, employees’ supervisors must determine if a job requires having a cellphone or other mobile device. Employees often on the road, in the field or on constant alert for emergencies will likely be eligible.

Employees could get reimbursed for voice or data only, or both, depending on their jobs.

The reimbursement would not be calculated as a salary increase and would be paid quarterly. Employees would have to complete a reimbursement form and provide copies of their monthly bills.

Employees would be responsible for additional services or fees and would be required to keep the device active and in compliance with their agency’s security standards.

To reimburse or not

Besides Delaware, Washington state and Virginia also reimburse some employees for using their personal phones for work, but other states are holding off for now.

In general, states have been slow to adopt BYOD programs, but that is changing, said Charles Robb, a senior policy analyst at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO).

Still, states are reluctant to adopt reimbursement programs because there are few case studies to examine from which to make a business case for it.

“In this budget climate, I don’t see how we would move to a model where we reimburse employees for their cost,” said Dan Egan, spokesman for the state of Pennsylvania. “Our perspective right now is it is a convenience for them [to] not have multiple devices hanging off their belt.”

In Virginia, state officials say the benefit to the employee — and not savings — was the driving force behind creating a BYOD and cost-reimbursement program.

“The benefit is really to be more employee-centric and eliminate employees having to keep up with two devices,” said Doug Wilson, who manages telecom services for Virginia state employees. “If it saves money, that’s fine, but the more important issue is that it’s not going to cost any more.”

In the case of BYOD, there are additional costs the state will incur, including costs for software that protects agency data and enforces security policies on employees’ personal phones, Wilson said. “It’s not like you can shift the cost to the employee, pay a stipend and not have any other financial or support requirements.”

Wilson declined to say how much Virginia reimburses employees for their personal smartphone usage because the state’s mobile communications policy is pending final approval. But he said the amount is enough to justify an employee accepting additional traffic on his phone but not so great as to increase costs for the state.

Meanwhile, the state of Georgia is planning a BYOD program, said CIO Calvin Rhodes. “I think they [employees] view [BYOD] as a benefit, even if we are not reimbursing.”

To alleviate the cost of employees using personal devices during work hours, agencies eventually will have the option of procuring an enterprise WiFi service for employees, said Steve Nichols, the state’s chief technology officer.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to announce its BYOD in the next few weeks, said Jack Montgomery, team lead of NRC’s technology direction and standards team. The voluntary program will not require employees to turn in their BlackBerrys, of which there are between 800 and 1,000 in use at NRC. Although the agency has not ruled out the potential for a reimbursement, NRC has not typically reimbursed employees who telework or are approved to use personal devices to access work remotely, Montgomery said. “Cost was not the main business driver [for the BYOD program].”

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