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Commentary: Five ways mobile technology can benefit your mission

The recently unveiled 21st Century Digital Government strategy made it clear that federal agencies must embrace mobile technology. Among other things, it required agencies to make two high-value, customer-facing services available via mobile devices over the next year. Having worked with a number of agencies, including the Veterans Affairs Department; U.S. Marshals; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Amtrak and the Census Bureau, it’s clear there are some common lessons in using mobile devices to advance an agency’s mission.

Even before the Obama administration introduced its digital strategy, most program managers weren’t asking if they should go mobile, they wanted to know how they should embrace mobile technology. There is little precedent for the current pace of mobile device adoption. Today, over half of American adults have a smartphone and over 20 percent have a tablet computer. Apple iPads are seen frequently at the White House and in other high profile settings. All of this is creating heightened expectations among citizens and workers alike that government services should be mobile.

The rapid emergence of these consumer-based technologies has also shattered the cost constraints to going mobile. Previously, mobile technology was out of reach for all but the most mission-critical applications. Even then, adoption meant frequent compromises. But the economics have shifted and even local governments are deploying their own mobile apps.

These two factors -- lower costs and heightened expectations -- create the opportunity and justification for going mobile, but alone they don’t provide the imperative. The biggest force driving adoption is the fact that many of the most important missions in government occur in the field.  Regardless of the user -- federal worker or citizen -- government data and resources are most valuable at the time and point of interaction. Mobile devices are now capable of providing this capability remotely and on-demand. 

Narrow Your Focus

While powerful, mobile devices are not a cure-all. For example, they are often a poor replacement for intensive content creation as they are generally optimized for content consumption. As such, they are very effective for well-defined tasks requiring standardized inputs but may have limitations when tackling ad hoc processes requiring more subjective responses. Not surprisingly, many of the most effective and popular apps have a fairly narrow focus.

This gap between content consumption and creation is presumably what Microsoft is seeking to address with its recently announced Surface tablet that includes an integrated keyboard. This hybrid approach promises important advantages, but may also result in compromises and tradeoffs. It will be interesting to see where the final product lands. 

We also see some organizations attempting to force mobility where the return is not clear. For instance, are tablets always a more cost-effective alternative to traditional laptops? Probably not if they are to be used primarily to create complex content. 

The use cases for mobile devices within government can be clustered into three common scenarios:

  • Mission Applications. Field workers can use mobile devices to execute mission-focused tasks more efficiently and effectively. Potential users include clinicians, law enforcement personnel, case workers, inspectors and warfighters.   
  • Constituent Outreach. Providing communities of interest, such as citizens, state and local government and industry, with mobile applications to streamline their interactions with the federal government can improve service to those groups.
  • Personal Productivity. Mobile devices provide knowledge workers with on-the-go access to their office. They can also be an effective alternative to traditional printed textbooks, manuals and briefing materials as they can be updated more frequently and at less cost. 

With federal agencies needing to do more with less, the most successful projects measurably advance the mission while delivering demonstrable savings. While there is no universal rule, we see this happening most readily with mission applications followed by constituent outreach programs. Personal productivity applications, such as email, increasingly are ‘table stakes’ as this functionality becomes more widely available. Exceptions include electronic readers used to replace printed materials that are costly and challenging to keep up to date, such as flight manuals or product maintenance specifications.  

Business Cases that Deliver Value

In and of itself, going mobile isn’t justification for adopting smartphones and tablets. And while specific use cases can be very compelling, more detailed analysis is required to create business cases that justify investments. The goal isn’t simply to support the mission; you need to demonstrate how you can advance the mission.

In our work, we have identified a number of benefits associated with mobile technology that can be measured, including:

  1. Greater Accuracy – Mobile devices can eliminate error-prone manual data entry and transcription. Associated features, such as GPS time stamping and cameras, can be used to further verify data collected in the field.
  2. Better Outcomes – Mobile devices can provide direct access to the information and resources required to make informed decisions. As one example, we have developed applications that provide clinicians with secure, on-demand access to a patient’s medical record whenever and wherever they are required to give a consultation. 
  3. Higher Productivity – By connecting with back office systems, mobile devices can be used to streamline and automate processes, optimize routing and eliminate duplicitous data entry. 
  4. Improved Safety – Providing enhanced situational awareness and integrated panic buttons can protect employees working remotely. 
  5. Faster Results – Field work can be accessed immediately versus waiting days or weeks to be entered into systems of record. As a result, revenue can be recognized more quickly, research acted upon faster and claims processing times reduced.   

By quantifying these benefits in the context of an existing business case, agencies frequently can demonstrate significant return on investment. 

We are often asked if cost savings generated from replacing traditional laptops (or BlackBerrys) with less costly alternatives is a viable business case. While this obviously varies by agency, there are a couple of caveats that you need to consider. In terms of direct replacement, the number of users may be fairly small if you focus solely on those that primarily consume content. The exception here includes agencies with large field forces that smartphones and tablets can be optimized to support. Of course, these field workers may currently lack access to any device, which negates these potential replacement cost savings as this would be a net-new expense. If you expand this direct replacement audience to those who create complex content, you also need to consider the potentially negative impact on productivity of limiting them to one device.

In the second scenario, the better approach is to equip users with the right tool for the job and make the business case for using both laptops and tablets based on overall performance. As one example, law enforcement agencies have found benefits in providing agents with both laptops and tablets to support different requirements in the field. One of the potential justifications for the second device is more thorough documentation of a crime scene, which can reduce the cost of subsequent prosecutions.

Finally, agencies can assess the softer benefits of adopting mobile devices. You can make a business case for improved productivity and better decision making, but what about higher user satisfaction? The positive impact on recruitment and retention can be compelling enough in very competitive fields to justify the investment. Healthcare and engineering are two prime examples, particularly when you are trying to attract the next generation to public service. 

For citizen-facing services, user satisfaction can be critically important in driving adoption. Assuming that this usage is tied to a credible business case, such as lower fulfillment costs by shifting to self-service, it can provide strong investment justification.  

Tim Hoechst is the chief technology officer of Agilex, where he leads the company’s Technology Innovation Center, a research and product development organization.

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