White House limits feds' mobile devices to cut costs

Computers, not phones, are responsible for most duplication, experts say.

An Obama administration executive order aimed at cutting government waste includes a plan to trim "duplicative and unnecessary" employee information technology devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets.

Most of the duplication in federal employees' personal IT devices involves computers, not phones, said Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, an industry group that promotes working remotely.

Especially in the early days of telework, many agencies presumed an employee working remotely needed two computers -- one for the home and one for the office -- rather than a single laptop.

"Agencies are starting to be smart in asking employees and managers 'what do you need to be productive?' " Auten said.

The executive order directs them to consider agencywide IT investments such as remote desktop services that limit the need for extra devices.

A statement announcing the executive order cited examples of agencies that have been successful at clawing back unnecessary IT spending.

The Homeland Security Department, for example, has saved $10.5 million on cellphones and mobile wireless cards by conducting annual audits and taking back devices that weren't being used, the White House said.

In addition, the Commerce Department will save $3 million this year by disconnecting about 2,600 wireless lines that haven't been used for three months or more and by shifting rate plans for remaining subscribers.

There's been a trend in government to buy wireless services in larger bundles for use across agencies to take advantage of lower per-user rates at higher purchase levels, said Chris Felix, vice president for federal government sales at Verizon Wireless.

"Take Veterans Affairs, where their divisions typically act like their own little companies," Felix said. "They're all getting together now into one giant [blanket purchase agreement] with us, and they're seeing discounts that they never would have seen on their own."

Most of the executive order focuses on on non-IT areas such as reducing travel to conferences and eliminating the purchase of unnecessary promotional items, such as plaques.

Auten expressed support for the executive order, pointing to language in the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act urging agencies not to adopt a one-size-fits all approach and instead to investigate what equipment employees actually need as they design and expand plans to work outside the office.

"There's a line between filling employees' needs and overfilling them," Auten said. "When agencies set up a telework plan and ask us 'what technology should we buy?' we respond, 'what makes sense for the employee to do the job? What do they need to get them there?'"

Very few employees work outside the office 100 percent of the time, so it rarely makes sense to outfit them with a remote version of every piece of hardware and software they use in the office, she said.

In the past, some agencies purchased multipurpose devices for employees' home use, including scanners, faxes and printers, only to learn they rarely used the machines, Auten said.

One consequence of the executive order may be a faster move to the bring your own device model that many mobile proponents have advocated for teleworking, said Tim Hoechst, chief technology officer at Agilex, a government technology vendor.

So far, security concerns have kept most agencies from allowing personal devices onto their networks. Under the bring your own device model, employees can use whatever device they choose and agencies largely manage security at the application level.

Even as agencies ramp up their telework plans, employees already are sharing more of the costs of some technology such as wireless connections and phone service, Auten said. The Telework Enhancement Act doesn't spell out how much home technology an agency should pay for, but most shell out about half the cost of teleworkers' home wireless service, she said.

"There's a lot of give and get from a telework standpoint," she said. "You gain so much from telework by not having to commute, especially if you live farther out, that it's almost always a good overall investment."