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The Mobile Evolution Becomes a Revolution

July 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine
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The scramble is on to meet the needs of government staff  to use varied devices on the job.

Smartphones and tablet computers increasingly are replacing desktop and laptop personal computers as on-the-job tools of choice in the federal government. Such a change not only presents opportunities to improve efficiency and productivity among federal workers, but it also creates information technology management and data security challenges for those who oversee the digital resources of agencies.

“In some ways, it’s a revolution; in other ways, it’s an evolution,” says Casey Coleman, chief information officer for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), one of the largest agencies of the federal government.

“By evolution, I mean that technologies have converged,” she explains, “to make mobility a reality. It’s a revolution in terms of how we do our work.” Developments such as ubiquitous broadband Internet connections, wireless access to broadband connections, Web services, Web applications and cloud computing, Coleman adds, all are part of a system that makes content available securely and deliverable to any device.

“Now, we have mobile devices in a form factor that works for us,” she says. “Whereas, in the past, the mobile device of choice was limited to a laptop, or a mobile email device like a BlackBerry.”

The newest generation of mobile devices, including Apple iPhones and iPads and smartphones running Google’s Android operating system, enable many of the GSA’s 12,000 staffers to operate in a way that was not possible as recently as three years ago.

“We have folks who are very mobile,” Coleman explains. “Their work takes them to wherever our clients are, wherever the industry partners are, and that’s generally not sitting at your desk.” Their clients are the federal agencies that rely on the GSA for everything from office supplies, to cars and trucks, and even to office space. Staffers in the GSA’s Public Building Service, which is responsible for all federally owned and leased agency offices, often are inspecting those facilities and taking note of conditions that require action, she says. Historically they would have a clipboard, a piece of paper and a pen. They would take some notes and then return to their offices, where they would type up their report.

“That introduces more time into the process,” Coleman says. “You’re entering the information twice, and there’s an opportunity for error. And there’s the opportunity for less customer satisfaction. You’re less agile and [less] responsive.”

Contrast that, she continues, to today’s mobile work environment, where a Public Buildings Service staffer is entering the results of an inspection once into an electronic form in a tablet or smartphone. The information then travels wirelessly into the GSA’s servers from the field, and the processing of that report can begin almost as soon as that employee is in the car on the way back to the office. “You just improve the process, both quantitatively and qualitatively,” she concludes.

Coleman acknowledges that while the work of some GSA employees has changed because of the spread of mobile devices, the most significant impact and benefit of mobile computing has not been realized yet. “We’re still in the early stages of this revolution in how we work,” she explains, noting that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome concerns a number of legacy computer applications used by GSA departments to process information.

“We need to make those legacy applications mobile-accessible,” Coleman states. In some cases, that means creating simplified data entry screens suitable for small smartphones or creating additional data compression schemes to allow a report to travel over a wireless Internet connection more efficiently.

In recent years, one of the biggest changes to take place in the way that federal workers do their jobs is the spread of teleworking. According to the most recent report to Congress by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, nearly 114,000 workers, or roughly 5 percent of the federal work force, work from a location other than their department’s permanent office.

The GSA is one of the government leaders in the percentage of its staff who work out of the office, with more than 7,000 workers, or 57 percent of the work force, who telework. More than 5,000 of that number regularly telework at least one day a week. That high rate of teleworking is credited for allowing the GSA to house its 4,000-person headquarters work force in temporary offices with 2,000 seats while its historic headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., is being renovated.

One key to a successful teleworking program is participation from the very top echelons of an agency. Every GSA administrator for the past decade has teleworked at least once a week, and GSA department heads are required to do so. Coleman recently experienced the benefits of teleworking firsthand when she spent four months working from Seattle while her husband was receiving medical treatment. She used tools such as Web chats and videoconferencing to work with staff, and she recently told the Telework Exchange that many people did not even realize she was out of the office.

Coleman believes that today’s mobile computing platforms make a big difference in teleworking, and she cites the 97 percent of GSA workers polled who say they have the mobile tools needed to telework successfully. According to Coleman, that is a great number. “What it says is that for the purpose of teleworking, we have given people an environment that is a productive work environment for them,” she states.

Coleman, who has served as the GSA’s CIO since 2007, and before that as CIO of the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service and Federal Technology Service, has overseen much of the recent technology evolution at the agency. But she also acknowledges that the GSA has a formal role and legislative mandate from Congress to lead the rest of the federal government in expanding the use of teleworking.

“Along with the Office of Personnel Management, [the] GSA’s Office of Governmentwide Policy also helps with the formulation of telework policies at other agencies,” she explains. That includes providing technology and best practices guidance on resources needed to successfully implement teleworking. One of the keys to doing that at the GSA, Coleman says, was the decision in 2006 to consolidate all infrastructure support and common information technology services into one agencywide program.

She explains that previously the GSA had as many as 39 different information technology support contracts scattered among different departments throughout the agency. Consolidating the contracts “allowed us to standardize on a common image—the basic technical configuration—for our laptops and made them much easier to support; we realized more economies of scale,” she says. “We also consolidated all of our wireless devices into one data plan.” That allowed the GSA to save money and make the most efficient use of smartphones deployed to workers. Today, the agency has as many as 10,000 BlackBerry smartphones in use.

Another big consideration in the use of mobile devices in the workplace is security. Coleman says that at the GSA, her information technology staff takes a layered approach. “Think about it in terms of protecting the data, protecting the network, protecting the devices and educating the users,” she explains.

Cloud computing and virtualization are other keys to providing a secure environment for the growing universe of mobile devices at the GSA, Coleman adds. Because of nearly ubiquitous high-speed broadband Internet access, it no longer is necessary for both the application and the data to be downloaded to a device. Instead, mobile devices can be configured to retrieve both the application and data as needed.

Other steps the GSA has taken to modify its information technology infrastructure to accommodate the surge in mobile computing includes segmenting its internal network to allow the agency to manage better which employees access specific resources. Coleman says this strategy makes it possible to limit the harm to GSA resources if a mobile device is compromised.

The GSA is working with many of the large vendors in the mobile application community to develop federally compliant software applications for use in mobile devices. The effort, which Coleman describes as being in the early stages, is designed to ensure that apps distributed through outlets such as the Apple Store are screened with federal security guidelines in mind. The goal is to create an inventory of mobile applications suitable for use within the government.

She also reports that some federal agencies are choosing to create their own apps stores, inside their secure firewalls, for the distribution of applications that already have been configured to operate securely with mobile devices.

WEB RESOURCES
General Services Administration: www.gsa.gov
U.S. Office of Personnel Management: Status of Telework in the Federal Government, February 2011: www.telework.gov/Reports_and_Studies/Annual_Reports/2010teleworkreport.pdf
Telework Exchange: www.teleworkexchange.com