IT & Networks

Agencies refine mobile approaches

Mobile hardware and associated mobile solutions have been some of the fastest growing areas in federal IT over the past few years as agency managers seek to meet the demands of an increasingly mobile workforce and deliver mobile-friendly content to citizens.

Federal managers are investing in a wide range of mobile technologies, including automatic software updates, backup/restore capabilities, laptops and tablets, mobile device management, smartphones, and secure remote connections, industry and government representatives say.

According to a Mobile Exchange report released in June 2014, federal agencies invested $1.6 billion in the mobile workforce since the government's Digital Government Strategy was issued in 2012. The ultimate goal of the strategy and accompanying document is to help federal IT managers find ways to give mobile workers secure access to government services from anywhere, at any time and on any device.

Jon Johnson, director of the General Services Administration's Enterprise Mobility Program, said agencies are spending their IT dollars on wireless services and accompanying devices, reaping up to 20 percent in savings buying bundled services and devices through GSA's Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative (FSSI) Wireless.

"The federal government has been in the wireless carrier and device business for many years. What has changed, though, is the scope of agency personnel who are working in more mobile environments," Johnson said.

FSSI Wireless was established to improve the procurement and management of wireless services across government by reducing prices and helping to consolidate wireless spending. "Previously, it was not unheard of for agencies to have hundreds — if not thousands — of different wireless agreements," Johnson said.

In May 2013 GSA awarded FSSI Wireless blanket purchase agreements to AT&T Mobility, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. Agencies can purchase a variety of wireless devices bundled with the service, including fourth-generation smartphones, cellphones and broadband data devices.

EEOC invests in bundled services

Driven by a 15 percent budget cut for IT spending in fiscal year 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission initiated a mobility strategy and program that helped cut spending on voice and data services by 50 percent. EEOC adopted a two-pronged strategy, first looking at the rate plans for its government-owned devices. The agency, in fact, was paying much more than it needed to — $800,000 for BlackBerry devices and accompanying services, said Kimberly Hancher, EEOC's chief information officer.

Through analysis and rate-plan optimization, the EEOC moved mobile devices to a bundled data and voice plan that lets employees share minutes, and put smartphones on current plans based on usage patterns. Secondly, EEOC implemented a pilot bring-your-own-device program, which cut costs by allowing employees to give up their agency-issued BlackBerrys and use their own preferred devices, all synchronized via a cloud-based mobile devices management (MDM) system, Hancher said. EEOC selected AT&T as its carrier for wireless service.

"We cut our spending by 50 percent in the middle of that [2012] fiscal year" to $400,000, Hancher said. By 2014, the agency was paying under $250,000 for wireless voice and data service and the MDM cloud-based software tool. "It ended up being a good cost-saving measure over time, which is a testament to managing mobility," Hancher said.

Based on feedback from mobile users, which comprise about 20 percent of the EEOC workforce, future investment could be spent on training. Mobile users indicated in a survey that they would like more orientation on devices and instruction on how to use them for work purposes.

"We will be orchestrating a program to better provide mobile support for mobile device users," Hancher said. This might mean having front-line, help-desk support for mobile users.

Another pressing decision is whether to continue to offer BlackBerry, Hancher said. She would like to be able to offer Android-based devices, but those bring security concerns. GSA's Johnson noted there is a trend in government to move away from the BlackBerry to more diverse enterprise mobile platforms.

The BlackBerry is optimized for government security requirements. "But now with the Apple iOS operating system and Android, there is a demand to help lock [these devices] down," said Eugene Liderman, director of public sector technology at Good Technology, a developer of mobile enterprise management and security software.

Agency managers want to know how they can comply with specific requirements, such as Federal Information Processing Standards, for security or how to layer on software for application security. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is giving some guidance in this area with Special Publications that address device credentials [SP 800-157] and vetting of security for mobile applications [SP 800-163], he noted.

There is no question that digital and mobile apps are important technologies to help give the government workforce access to data and for agencies to reach out to diverse constituencies, said Ray Bjorklund, head of BirchGrove Consulting. However, "I don't think the [federal] acquisition system is sufficiently robust enough to accommodate this newer way of doing business," which requires a more agile and flexible approach.

GSA is working with agencies toward a governmentwide mobility program to help agencies control mobile assets and comply with federal policies. The General Accountability Office has been looking at agency spending patterns for two to three years, GSA's Johnson said. It has been a difficult task for agencies to identify the solutions they have and how much they have been spending on them, he explained. "With FSSI Wireless, at the very least, agency CIO offices now have the visibility they lacked previously," he said.

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