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The future of mobile devices in the federal workplace

Jul. 31, 2013 - 01:22PM   |  
By NOLAN JONES   |   Comments

While the private sector has been deploying mobile technology over the past several years, the federal government has been carefully evaluating how it can implement mobile devices to create efficiencies and better serve constituents. Government, more than the private sector, faces security, regulatory, policy and other restrictions that have demanded this thoughtful approach.

Today, government agencies are starting to get a handle on how they can implement mobile technology within the context of their own requirements. Though the transition won’t be free of challenges, the time is right for government to embrace mobile. Policies have evolved enough to allow agencies to place suitable parameters on how mobile technology can be used, and progress in device management solutions allows more granular control over the work being performed on mobile devices.

The building blocks that will help make the transition possible are mobile enterprise applications — comprehensive, cross-platform programs or services that a government agency develops and uses.

Enterprise apps are large and complex and require significant development time. They typically involve numerous, interconnected activities, functions, interfaces and people, requiring multiple layers of approvals. Further, they must be created thoughtfully to take advantage of all of the benefits mobile devices offer.

In enterprise-type activities, which primarily involve field work such as inspections or issuing permits, the transition to mobile goes beyond reformatting a current computer-based system or program for mobile devices. Government agencies must explore how they can fully leverage the power of mobile devices to transform how jobs get done.

Field staff should offer insights about how required tasks could be streamlined through mobile device use. Agencies should provide as much flexibility as possible and use an iterative process to get priority functions up and running first, rather than addressing too many at once. Security must be baked in from the beginning, not considered at the end, and must be appropriate for the device.

If an outside vendor is assisting with development, the agency should ascertain that the vendor has a strong track record and an expectation of longevity. Mobile enterprise apps require that new functionalities be added as they become available, and agencies need to know a vendor can deliver ongoing support.

Meticulously developed mobile enterprise apps will enable government employees to better perform their jobs, to the benefit of businesses and citizens. As government expands mobile technology use:

■ Productivity will surge. For example, in the future, it may be possible for a meat-packing plant inspector working to identify a specific pathogen to perform on-site tests using tools attached to a tablet, rather than having to wait for lab results. If he discovers there’s bad product, he can immediately stop further processing until the pathogen is eliminated. If there’s no problem, the plant can restart production quickly.

■ Efficiency will rise. An employee without a mobile device often has to record information in the field on a laptop or paper, shoot photographs with a separate camera, gather documents, take everything back to the office, download the pictures and create a working file. An employee with a mobile device could complete the same tasks at the site, permitting time for more inspections to be done.

■ Safety and accountability will increase. Mobile devices can provide detailed, real-time data about employee location, validate that an employee is where he claims to be and provide safety information if there’s an incident.

■ Augmented reality will expand inspection options. An inspector reviewing parts on a helicopter motor could hold up a mobile device camera to a certain part while the device overlays an image of how the part should look, allowing the inspector to quickly determine if something is out of place. The enterprise app then might allow the employee to pull up information about how to repair the part or how many miles the helicopter should fly before the part is replaced.

With government early in the process of incorporating mobile enterprise apps, we can only imagine the creativity that will be unleashed as the technology takes hold and begins to reveal its potential. With careful analysis and implementation, both agencies and the public will reap the benefits.

Nolan Jones is director of eGovernment Innovation for NIC Inc., a provider of government Web portals, online services and secure payment processing solutions for local, state and federal agencies. He can be reached at

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