When the White House rolled out its digital government strategy last May, it made the use of mobile technology a centerpiece, vowing to "enable the American people and an increasingly mobile workforce to access high-quality digital government information and services anywhere, anytime, on any device."
With the one-year anniversary of that plan approaching, the Mobile Work Exchange, an organization dedicated to the advancement of remote work, has polled 175 federal IT executives to get a sense of how far they have progressed in developing and implementing their mobile strategies.
The results were, in a word, mixed.
Grading Mobile Progress
"When we dig into it a little more deeply, they've clearly started to make progress on things," says Chris Roberts, vice president of the worldwide public sector business at Good Technology, which sponsored the study. "It seems like they've all started to work on this problem, and they've attacked what I call the foundational issues."
A slim majority of the respondents--52 percent--say that their agency has taken steps to "mature" their mobile strategy over the past year, though concerns over security, budget constraints and the upheaval of an election year have all slowed the advance of mobile technology in the federal government.
Asked to grade their agencies' progress on implementing the White House mobility directive, the respondents more or less line up along a bell curve, with 39 percent giving their agency a "C," 36 percent a "B," and 16 percent a "D." Just 7 percent say they would award their agency an "A," and 2 percent said "F."
Seventy-three percent of the respondents identify security as a barrier to mobility, making that consideration the leading impediment, followed by budgeting, which 60 percent of respondents cited as an obstacle.
The IT executives polled in the survey report that they have been taking several steps to address the security issues that arise with mobility, including the rollout of encryption technology, mobile device management and multi-factor authentication.
Additionally, federal agencies have begun to develop training programs to educate employees about mobile security issues. Sixty-five percent of the survey respondents report that their agency has such a program in place, and 68 percent say that employees in their agency receive written information about mobile device security.
"That's an excellent step that they've taken," says Roberts. "A lot of the hacks, a lot of the breaches come from social engineering--social kinds of things you want to make sure employees are aware of."
The security issues agencies have been dealing with in assessing their mobility plans received a new wrinkle in February, when President Obama issued an executive order on cybersecurity that tasked the agencies with developing a framework for sharing threat information and better coordinating with private-sector technology providers, among other areas of focus.
Mobile All About the Money
As significant as the concerns over mobile security are, they are not insurmountable, according to Roberts. Budget considerations, particularly the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as sequestration, were another major impediment to the deployment of mobile technology in the government. Budgets, along with the "customary shuffling of chairs in an election year," have proven a drag on agencies' mobility plans, Roberts explains.
"The progress that they've made has been slowed in large part by sequestration," Roberts says. "If it had been a non-election year, had we not faced sequestration, I think cybersecurity alone would not have derailed a lot of initiatives."
Agencies are taking steps to trim costs associated with mobility, with 59 percent of the respondents saying that they have been conducting agency-wide inventories of their devices and wireless contracts, one of the milestones included in the digital government strategy. Another 50 percent say that their agency is developing a cost-cutting plan related to the mobile devices that they issue to employees.
Even if budget pressures have put some mobility projects on hold in the near term, over time the increased efficiencies from a mobilized workforce and novel apps could more than recoup an agency's initial expenditure, according to Roberts.
"I do think that there's a huge opportunity for government to save money and improve efficiency through mobile application," he says. "I actually suspect that there's an opportunity to do more with mobility going forward given the budget constraints."
Roberts suggests that the next phase in the evolution of the government's mobility plans could focus on producing deliverables in the form of apps as agencies navigate through the process of establishing policies for security, device management and access.
Mobile Apps Next Step
Around three-quarters of the respondents say that they using, developing or evaluating options for mobile apps, but just 9 percent say that their agency has set up an app store. Further, just 39 percent of respondents say that their agency has optimized at least two citizen-facing applications for mobile devices, another milestone in the digital government strategy.
"I would have assumed at this stage we would be farther with a bigger portfolio of applications," Roberts says, offering the hope that the coming year will see a sharp uptick in the production of public-facing apps. "The number that's going to be the most telling for me is if 65 percent of the federal agencies out there have applications for citizen and applications they use to drive efficiencies."
"I would say that getting applications out ... that would be my barometer," he adds. "I want to see that 39 percent turn into something in the high 60s."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @kecorb. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.