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Small agencies navigate challenges of BYOD

Nov. 4, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
charles m walling, aado kommendant, ivo kommendant
Tommy Hwang, chief information officer at the Merit Systems Protection Board, uses his phone outside his office. (Mike Morones / Staff)

Very few agencies have thriving mobility programs that allow employees to use their personal smartphones and tablet computers for work, largely due to concerns over security.

But the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Merit Systems Protection Board are among those agencies forging ahead with bring-your-own-device (BYOD) programs.

In the last year, both agencies have extended BYOD capabilities to more employees and are offering virtual access to a wider range of agency systems. MSPB even pays a stipend to employees who agree to ditch their government devices in favor of using their own personal devices.

“Everyone was talking about it, but no one had actually done it,” Tommy Hwang, chief information officer at MSPB, said of offering a reimbursement. “It comes down to making a business case.”

That isn’t always easy.

First, only employees who turn in government-issued devices can qualify for a $25 monthly reimbursement, or about half of what the agency would have paid for one device each month. MSPB treats its mobile reimbursements like other expense reimbursements for taxis or local travel when employees use their own money.

Hwang said about 45 MSPB employees had government smartphones, but only handful of them — 15 percent — have turned in their government phones and are receiving reimbursements.

Hwang said he expects participation will increase, considering the program and reimbursement plan have been in place less than a year.

For every 20 employees that give up their government devices, the agency expects to save about $10,000 a year, he said. “For our agency, $10,000 is pretty good.”

But money isn’t the main driver for the agency’s program, Hwang said.

“It’s not technology for the sake of technology, and it’s not thinking about saving money — but that’s a benefit. It’s about how do we make the employees more efficient and more productive?”

For example, MSPB’s legal offices deal with mounds of case documents, but having electronic access to those documents via tablet computers would make their jobs a lot easier.

“That’s the vision [of] where we want to be,” he said. Today, employees can connect directly to the agency’s cloud-based email system from their personal device, and some employees are piloting a capability that provides virtual access to everything on their office computers.

“I think the hardest part is ... getting over the fear,” Hwang said. “I think the fact that we’re small is a plus because we can work through this much faster than a much bigger agency.”

Hwang worked with the agency’s general counsel’s office, the employees’ union and others to draft the BYOD policy.

Kimberly Hancher, CIO at EEOC, said her agency is considering offering similar virtual desktop capabilities for employees, but it would be too costly to support that infrastructure in-house. Instead, EEOC aims to provide desktop capabilities as a cloud-based service, she said.

About 100 people are participating in the agency’s BYOD program. For executives, they can do time cards and other routine administrative work remotely and access other core systems to do their jobs, such as Web-based meetings, document management and mission systems, Hancher said. Those employees are required to have additional security training.

Hancher gave employees a choice last year to use their own mobile devices or their government-issued BlackBerrys, and most clung to their BlackBerrys. Most wanted to keep their personal and work devices separate, while some didn’t own a personal smartphone or were concerned about the cost of using their personal devices for work.

When asked what might influence them to consider trading in their government BlackBerrys, most feds said nothing would change their minds, Hancher said.

“In the back of my mind, I was hoping to eliminate government-provided mobile devices,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice? But this survey made me realize you’re always going to be provisioning.”

She’s using the General Services Administration’s new Wireless Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative contract to buy government iPhones and newer BlackBerry smartphones for employees whose jobs require them to have a phone but who prefer not to use their personal devices.

The concern, however, is that some employees who returned their older government BlackBerrys and are using their personal smartphones today may decide to go back to using a government phone now that Hancher is providing iPhone 4 devices and BlackBerry Bold smartphones.

Hancher is holding off on raising the issue of reimbursements for BYOD users, for now.

Similar to MSPB, the state of Michigan is modeling its BYOD program after Delaware. Dan Lohrmann, Michigan’s chief security officer, said the program is still in a pilot phase, but it will be rolling out to more employees as officials firm up a plan for cost reimbursements.

“BYOD is the new wireless ... and I don’t think you can just say no,” Lohrmann said. “For years, I opposed wireless networks, and now its ubiquitous.”

To make BYOD a reality, agencies must have a mobile device management (MDM) tool in place to enforce security policies, whether employees are using their personal device or government phones. His office is providing MDM capabilities as a service to other state agencies.

For the average employee, there may not be a compelling reason to use their personal devices if they won’t be reimbursed for some of the cost. He’s hopeful the program will gain traction and government agencies will follow suit behind many private sector companies and pay employees for working on their personal devices.

“I’m a proponent of BYOD, but not at any cost,” Lohrmann said.

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