WASHINGTON -- When federal CIOs think about relaxing their policies for mobile workers, their concerns are not altogether different from those that keep their counterparts in the private sector up at night.
To be sure, enterprise CIOs are insulated from charges of wasting taxpayer dollars if a project goes sour, and the federal government does have unique security and compliance concerns, but issues around employees bringing their own devices to work and the cost/benefit analysis of deploying a new device like Apple's iPad are common to business and government.
But there is no doubt about it -- federal and state governments are going mobile, albeit at perhaps a generally slower pace than the business world.
"I think mobile technology is critical to our business, to our environment, to the things that we do," Stephen Fletcher, Utah's CIO and the former CIO of the Department of Education, said in a panel discussion here at the FOSE government IT conference. Utah has deployed more than 1,000 applications to extend its government services to digital platforms, which increasingly means mobile apps for smartphones and tablets.
"We use these online applications because our citizens require it," Fletcher said. "Our citizens want all information, any time, on any device. So that's kind of a really, really tough thing to provide, but that's where the mobile technology comes into play."
A similar -- though much more ambitious -- initiative is underway at the federal level. In January, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel announced the launch of a broad-ranging program to articulate policies for procuring, managing and securing mobile devices, and establish guidelines for developing apps for deployment in the federal government.
The federal effort aims to serve two sets of customers: citizens and the government workers whose productivity and effectiveness figure to improve with access to the new technology. Richard Holgate, the CIO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the co-chair of the federal government's mobile task force, emphasized that the initiative is not simply a case of pursuing technology for technology's sake.
"This is not really about mobility and technology per se. This is about how to better serve the business," Holgate said.
Other officials emphasized the importance of developing a solid business case for equipping workers with, say, a tablet computer, or sinking considerable resources into application development, echoing the concerns that surround decisions about mobile deployments in private-sector IT shops.
"We've worked very hard to separate the toy and the jazz and to [determine] what's the business value and utility of this tool," said Stephen Warren, principal assistant deputy secretary for information and technology with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA fields a substantial mobile workforce to provide health care, benefits and memorial service assistance throughout the country, and maintains operations in South Korea, Germany and the Philippines. Much of the work that department employees perform is out in the field, meeting with veterans, such as the remote health-care workers who now carry tablets equipped with an app called "clinic in hand," which calls up a patient's complete medical profile, including high-quality images.
"I think we've evolved to the point where providing those key, critical business systems, sitting behind a desk in an office doesn't work anymore. Being able to move the access point, being able to move the data, being able to provide the services wherever you find your customer or your client is critical," Warren said.
"As an example, one of the larger goals that the VA has said is, 'We are ending homelessness as we know it for veterans.' Well you don't do that in a building in a major metropolitan area or in a rural area," he added.
Where the business case for a new mobile deployment originates can vary. In some cases, IT might play the role of cheerleader. In Utah, for instance, IT leaders worked to generate enthusiasm for including geolocation data in their public-facing apps, and, after an initial wave of resistance from various business groups, the compelling use cases started to pile up, and IT has begun to roll out location-aware applications to help residents find the nearest hospital or police station, among other information and services, according to Fletcher.
"Some of the challenges for deploying mobile technology is just getting business involved, getting them to realize this will be useful for them," Fletcher said.
In other cases, the dynamic can be reversed. Robert Corcoran, who manages the Federal Aviation Administration's ATO-IT Architecture and Applied Technology Group, explained that his team approached other groups in the agency asking for suggestions for mobile use cases before proceeding with plans for deployment.
One of the responses came from the legal team, which proposed a tablet app to collect all the information relating to the files of cases that the FAA was bringing against pilots, air traffic controllers and others implicated in flight incidents involving negligence or other allegations. The lawyers explained, perhaps with more than a grain of seriousness, that cases are most often won by the legal team that is better organized, and suggested that a well-designed tablet app that contained evidence like radar images from the time of the incident would be a powerful tool. Now that the iPad app is a reality, the FAA has managed to avoid considerable litigation expenses, as defense attorneys, bowing to what Corcoran described as a "preponderance of evidence," typically concede to a settlement after the first meeting.
"In our case, the legal department tells us that they saved in the neighborhood of about $100,000 per action, which is a substantial cost savings," Corcoran said, noting that the agency went out of its way to evaluate the business case before committing to development and deployment.
"We had a genuine fear that we would be accused of handing out toys to people, and so we do have the documentation that establishes what we were testing," he said.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.