Can ATF's Rick Holgate ditch the desktop?

At a time when many agencies are struggling to untether their employees from desktop PCs, CIO Rick Holgate is moving ATF closer to a mobile-only work environment.

Rick Holgate

ATF's Rick Holgate is steadily moving employees from desktop PCs to mobile devices. (FCW photo)

When Rick Holgate was tapped to serve as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ assistant director for science and technology and CIO in August 2009, he was no stranger to the IT world. He had extensive experience in industry at firms such as BearingPoint and Mitre Corp. But it was in his role as assistant director for IT and command information officer at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service that allowed him to experience the federal IT world firsthand.

After being promoted from NCIS’ assistant director for IT and command information officer to the newly created position of executive assistant director, Holgate was tasked with delivering IT services to 2,400-plus employees worldwide, managing the agency’s application portfolio, and integrating NCIS’ information management needs with those of the Navy Department, the Defense Department and other partners.

Although most of Holgate’s professional background is heavily influenced by technology, he said mobility is something he simply fell into. His interest began brewing at NCIS, which has an even more mobile workforce and complex mission than ATF because of the service’s international component and the need to operate in a classified environment.

“We had a mantra at NCIS that we were looking for infrastructure that was global, mobile, and highly reliable and secure,” said Holgate, who is also co-chairman of the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s Advanced Mobility Working Group. “But a lot of the time, those four characteristics work against each other.”

A spirit of experimentation

Despite the challenges, getting employees to embrace mobile initiatives has not been an issue at ATF, Holgate said. But managing expectations is a different matter, one that the popular “NCIS” TV series on CBS didn’t help.

“Enthusiasm has never been a problem,” he said. “At NCIS, people’s reference point was always the TV show, so our employees would see the TV show and ask, ‘Why don’t we have cool stuff like that?’”

ATF’s special agents are by nature aggressive adopters of new technologies, Holgate said. The Justice Department “has been much easier to work with, I think, than if I was trying to do similar things in a [Defense Department] environment where the risk tolerance level is different,” he added.

ATF’s current mobile projects seek to go beyond the agency’s reliance on laptop PCs and cell phones. For example, earlier this year, 2,400 special agents transitioned from BlackBerrys to iPhones in an effort to make Apple’s mobile platform the agency’s standard and thereby simplify the infrastructure for managing those devices.

The decision to switch to iPhones was initially more of a practical matter. In 2009, ATF began looking for ways to provide special agents with a video surveillance capability, which the BlackBerry lacked at the time. Officials experimented with Microsoft’s Windows mobile device, but it was “not the most user-friendly experience,” Holgate said.

With the introduction of the iPad in 2010, the iOS platform jumped to the forefront of mobile devices. The tablet PC “altered the thinking around mobile platforms and capabilities, so that was really when we started to shift our focus to that particular platform,” Holgate said. “We learned enough about managing the devices that we felt confident that we could get users a good, basic user experience for the kinds of things they expected from the BlackBerry standpoint but then also give them exposure to the other functionalities on the device.”

The iPad is still a bit of an experiment “in the sense that we’re trying to better learn how to provide the right tools for our users on that platform,” he added.

In that spirit of experimentation, ATF is working with different user groups to better understand what they do on a daily basis and how mobile devices can support that work. The groups include special agents, industry operations investigators and regulators.

ATF officials are also looking into developing their own mobile applications but only as a last resort when commercial apps do not meet a specific agency need. For example, ATF and the FBI have a collaborative notification requirement in the event either agency responds to an incident involving explosives. The agencies share jurisdiction to a certain extent, with the FBI taking the lead if the incident is terrorism- or national security-related, and the ATF stepping in when the event is a criminal matter.

“As you can imagine, sometimes that [distinction] gets blurry,” Holgate said.

To clear up some of that confusion, each agency agreed to notify the other when responding to an explosives incident using a standard format that had to work on iPhones. The first mobile app for that purpose allows an FBI or ATF agent to use the phones’ Global Positioning System and e-mail functions to send a notification.

BYOD and a mobile-only workforce

In August 2012, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel announced a new framework for creating bring-your-own-device environments. The document, which features case studies and best practices for BYOD, was developed by the CIO Council and the Digital Services Advisory Group, of which Holgate is a member.

At ATF, employees are allowed to use their personal mobile devices for work to a certain extent, Holgate said, but the agency has not yet adopted a BYOD policy.

The pressure to do so is hard to ignore, he acknowledged. “If you limit to a great extent what you deliver to your users, they will work around it,” he said, adding that ATF plans to revisit its current policies and models to allow for a more BYOD-friendly environment.

ATF has roughly 7,500 mobile device users, and 6,900 of them have laptop PCs. “It’s always been a fairly mobile workforce,” Holgate said. “Part of that is that our mission is very mobile, and part of it is that we’ve aggressively adopted telework, so historically the model has been that everyone gets a laptop.”

The goal is to give employees maximum mobility without giving them expensive hardware, Holgate said. The agency is now considering replacing some laptops with tablet PCs.

ATF has not reached the point of making desktop PCs a relic, but a mobile-only workforce could come to be, he said.

“It’s getting closer to that,” he said. “Today, there are still things that you tend to want a more traditional device for, but when you look at some of the current mobile devices out there, those are getting pretty close to allowing you to do whatever you need to do without it being a traditional desktop.”