RESTON, Va.—As the federal government works to craft a strategy for deploying mobile devices and applications across its sprawling workforce, the technology chiefs who will be leading the transition are embarking on what they see as a fundamental overhaul of the government's approach to IT, updating longstanding policies to respond more quickly to the pace of innovation that has been transforming enterprises across the private sector.
In the cloud arena, the feds have already rolled out initiatives that reflect the private-sector shift, including a government-facing app gallery and a so-called "cloud first" policy that prioritizes cloud technologies in the procurement process as the government embarks on an ambitious effort to consolidate its data centers.
The next frontier is mobile. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel formally announced the federal government's mobile initiative, through which department and agency CIOs and other tech leaders are developing a strategy for procuring, managing and securing smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, as well as policies for bringing apps in-house and sharing resources with the developer community.
Speaking at an event here at Sprint's offices organized by the Northern Virginia Technology Council, Richard Holgate, CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the cochairman of a taskforce on mobile technology in the government, described an effort that, if successful, will entail a radical departure from business as usual in the world of government IT.
"What we've traditionally done, as [have] many other organizations for the last 15 or so years, is give everyone a laptop, and then we gave everyone a BlackBerry, and then, you know, we started to give people cellular broadband cards. And so suddenly, there was this proliferation of mobile data devices to support a workforce. It was kind of a one-size-fits-all solution based on the technology that was prevalent at the time," Holgate said.
"I think a lot of us got very comfortable with a model that started in roughly the early 1990s and persisted through about the mid-2000s—about a decade and a half—where Windows PCs dominated everything, and that was slightly disrupted by the introduction of BlackBerrys, but it was a very consistent model that we got very comfortable with," he added.
During that period, Holgate explained, the federal agencies were able to coast on relatively steady policies surrounding management, deployment, configuration and security, almost to a level of complacency.
"It was a relatively stable and some might say stagnant environment for that 15-year period, and then suddenly in the mid-2000s, first with BlackBerry and now increasingly with Android, iOS, Windows Phone—you name it—suddenly there was this proliferation of other things in the environment," he said.
In many ways, federal CIOs have been dealing with the same challenges their counterparts in the private sector have faced in responding to some of the broad trends that have been reshaping enterprise IT. Certainly what is broadly termed the consumerization of IT, nowhere more evident than in the mobile arena, ranks near the top of that list.
Like corporate CIOs, federal tech bosses have been hearing the steady drumbeat of employees who have become dependent on smartphones and tablets in their personal lives, and who increasingly expect to use them at work.
"The bottom line for us, in my company and many others, is the whole way that we deal with interacting with the public, the public-facing apps, is changing dramatically, the expectation of employees is changing dramatically," said Mark Cohn, CTO with Unisys Federal Systems. "If we don't look at the whole other side—the inside enterprise IT systems and how the CIO has to manage the hybrid enterprise of the future and the cloud, with distributed system management—then we really can't make progress where we need to."
As a result, a growing number of companies have adopted some form of "bring-your-own-device" policy. For a variety of reasons, security and compliance chief among them, the government has been slower to move in that direction, but the use cases and potential cost savings have convinced the administration's tech team that the agencies need to adapt and allow new devices and apps into the fold without locking them down as they have with past technologies.
"From our perspective, given the level of compelling interest and need and capability that those services and those devices bring to our workforce, it's incumbent upon us to figure out how to bring that capability in our environment in such a way that we're comfortable with it, we know how to manage it, we know how to secure it but we're not trying to reproduce all of that in a government-unique fashion," Holgate said.
"I think that's the kind of disruptive, transformative point we're at—as a government certainly—is moving beyond the model for IT infrastructure that we've gotten comfortable with over the last 10, 15, 20 years and figuring out how to live in this environment where things are much more rapidly evolving, it's much more diverse, but it's also a much more capable environment and how do we as a government leverage all that capability without rebuilding it to government-unique requirements," he added. "That's a huge mindset change that a lot of us are struggling with."
For many agencies, that will mean trial programs to test the waters. In the case of the ATF, the agency has been conducting a trial of Apple's iOS for about a year. But Holgate emphasized that the purpose of such programs is not so much to test drive a particular device or operating system, but rather to develop a support and security framework of best practices that can apply across an agency, irrespective of the particular technology in use. Indeed, in announcing the mobile strategy initiative, VanRoekel pointed out that the government would take an agnostic approach with respect to devices and platforms.
VanRoekel's team recently concluded a public comment period for the federal mobile strategy, which is expected to be released around mid-March.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.