Feds are bullish on government apps, but few have downloaded one

Almost half of federal managers use a mobile software application more than once a day, but only 15 percent of federal smartphone users have ever downloaded a government-built app, according to a recent survey.

About two-thirds of federal officials didn't know whether their agency had built or planned to build a mobile app, according to the survey by the Government Business Council, part of Government Executive Media Group, and 38 percent were not aware the government had built any mobile apps.

More than two-thirds of federal managers favor the idea of agencies building mobile apps, however, saying apps can provide better citizen services and help the government keep up with private sector technology.

Some federal managers also cited the need for the government to communicate with lower-income people who are increasingly using smartphones as their primary or sole access point to the Internet if they can't afford a computer.

The survey respondents were 282 randomly selected federal officials from Government Executive's subscriber database. About 95 percent of respondents are at the General Schedule 11 level or higher and 57 percent manage one or more employees.

It's notoriously difficult to tabulate a margin of error for federal employee surveys because the government doesn't disclose how many federal executives work in some divisions for national security reasons and the precise number of federal employees can fluctuate wildly, depending on how surveyors count contractors and part-time employees.

Government Business Council and Nextgov are both part of Government Executive Media Group.

About 42 percent of managers cited security concerns as a major challenge to creating government apps, especially if the apps take in citizens' personal information such as Social Security or driver's license numbers. About one-third cited a lack of resources as a barrier.

The government has moved aggressively into the mobile app market, launching more than 80 apps in the past 18 months with almost every agency launching at least one app. Most government apps are aimed at providing some service, such as the Internal Revenue Service's IRS2GO app, which lets users know when their tax refund is on its way.

In other cases, agencies simply have created mobile-optimized versions of existing websites, which make the text and images on the page fit inside a mobile Web browser's screen. The government's push into mobile apps is being driven by the General Services Administration's Mobile Gov office, which is developing best practices.

About 90 percent of managers between the ages of 25 and 54 thought the government should create mobile apps, a much higher figure than their older counterparts. Only 9 percent of respondents thought the government should not create apps, typically because of security concerns.

Some agencies have developed mobile apps for internal use, but they are significantly less widespread than public-facing apps, mostly because of security concerns about holding and transmitting government data.

About half of surveyed managers strongly agreed that the government should use mobile apps internally to improve employee productivity. Half also said there are "new or additional opportunities for mobile app creation" within their agencies, both internal and public facing.

Of the 81 percent of respondents who own a smartphone or tablet computer, nearly half owned BlackBerrys. About 34 percent owned iPhones or iPads and the remainder owned devices that ran the Android operating system.