Don't jump to conclusions about Obama's order limiting mobile devices

Waste-cutting efforts won't necessarily reduce spending on mobile devices, experts say.

The new directive that requires federal agencies to limit the number of mobile devices for employees is less about cutting access to technologies and more about buying and using them smarter, experts said.

To expand on the Obama administration pledge to cut spending and eliminate waste, the president Nov. 9 signed an executive order directing agencies to further tighten their belts. Under the new directive, agencies will, among other measures, limit how many IT devices they provide to employees.

But the directive to slash devices does not necessarily mean federal employees will have to bid adieu to their smart phones and tablets. Although the government is trying to avoid unnecessary costs, the executive order at the same time endorses spending to create efficiencies in the public sector, said Warren H. Suss, president of federal IT consulting firm Suss Consulting, Inc.

“The directive specifically talks about initiatives designed to create efficiencies through the effective implementation of technology and makes specific reference to telework and the requirements of telework,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake to conclude that the executive order will lead to draconian cuts in government spending on needed technology investments.”

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The executive order in fact could push agencies to develop smarter investment policies and so ultimately increase spending on technology -- as long as the spending is tied to the mission and helps the government become more productive in a time of budget stress.

“Many agencies are still not buying smart phones in smart ways," Suss said. "They’re buying them in ways that fail to leverage the aggregate purchasing power of government. As a result, not only are they paying too much, they’re not getting some of the features and functions that some agencies have been able to get by using an enterprisewide approach.”

The directive also could change the buying and budgeting behaviors of the government and agency budgeting comptrollers. Agencies have the tendency of rushing to buy at the fiscal yearend in a “use it or lose it” fashion, spending money on hardware that do not always fit the agency’s needs, Suss said. 

A third possible outcome with the directive is that agencies identify which projects are worth paying extra attention to.

“Sometimes orders are a really good thing because they enable people who are trying to do the right thing anyway to actually implement those programs and do the right thing,” said Mischel Kwon, former director of the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team and now president of Mischel Kwon and Associates, LLC. “It helps move projects up in priority, and I think that’s very helpful.”

There is a risk that agencies misinterpret the order and follow the language inappropriately to cut back on technologies that federal employees use to do their job effectively. Suss pointed out it is up to the agencies “to their homework, and do it right.”

If agencies look at the executive order strictly as a top-down mandate to reduce spending on technology, they could hamper the efficiency of government workers who use mobile technologies to get their job done, he said.

“I do not believe that’s the intention of the order,” he said. “If anything, the order reinforces the value of technology but it just says, ‘do it in a smart way.’”

Another pitfall is that an agency that would use the order “as a blatant excuse to say no,” said Chip Gliedman, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

“As in, ‘no, we can’t do that’ or ‘we can’t buy you a blank,’” he said. “Agencies more likely have to ask the question of why. And honestly, if anyone can make a business case for having a certain device, it’s to all our benefit to give it to them. To just blatantly and capriciously say no because it’s a new device -- that will potentially hurt productivity.”

Although Kwon said she could not foresee any negative consequences stemming from the directive, she acknowledged that badly managed adoption could sometimes put the breaks on a well-intended effort.

“There is always poor implementation of programs and projects and things of that nature, but I don’t see that happening here,” she said.