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Apps – An “Aha!” or the New Four Letter Word?

With over half a million apps in iTunes, over 1 billion app downloads in Blackberry App World, & Amazon’s Appstore up and running, it’s hard to ignore the impact they’ve had on consumers. From Angry Birds and Uno to Handy Level and baby name generators, the app world has lit up countless mobile devices with their own button and branding.

And on GovLoop, as in the halls of any government building, there’s a buzz about bringing apps into the public sphere – government as a service, after all, needs to be accessible where the public already is! And government(s) absolutely should make information “plain language”, more “findable”, more accessible (I’m talking 508 & beyond here) – so those who seek such information can get it – from the ardent enthusiasts as well as the casual information seeker who brushes with the need or desire for such information.

But, even as I ponder if I need an app for my own program, I find myself asking – should we make an app for that? Or am I chasing cool points?

Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots of opportunities to facilitate information sharing with the public, industry, and amongst the workforce for the government. But I find myself wondering if some of the desire for government mobile application development is about “Keeping Up With The Jones'” and a new form of project creep for government IT. Worse still, I fear that some of the “app for that” desire comes with little more than a “Field of Dreams” business model behind it – build it, and they will come.

The recent Government Business Council report “If you build it, will they download?” identifies the results of a survey of federal managers regarding their opinions on the use of government mobile apps. Without seeing the methodology, it’s hard for me to weigh the survey results, other than federal employees download and use a whole lot more private apps than government ones – – (along with knowing I’ll be a ‘young manager’ until the age of 54, according to their survey population age breakout, so that’s a good thing!)

As a program manager, I find myself asking a few fundamental questions about mobile applications –

1. What business need will a mobile app fill for my program or project?

2. Can I meet the same business need by mobile optimization so mobility is platform agnostic?

3. How much funding will I need to divert away from my core program functions to support app based reach?

4. Is the gain worth the expense? Could I justify the expense to a taxpayer?

There are plenty of examples of ways government apps are useful, purposeful, and arguably needed. But I’m ambivalent on a generalized push for them.

What are your thoughts? Should there be something else to consider when thinking about apps for government?

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Good post.

I agree whole heartedly with the need for business cases and not simply creating apps to keep up with the Jones. By way of analogy, OMB recently launched an effort to stamp out duplicitous websites and I can see a similar phenomenon happening with our app ecosystem if we’re not careful.

That said, a contrarian thought – the Mobile Internet is exploding so do we risk ignoring a large universe of users? For example, the adoption of mobile technology by younger generations is widely reported, but you also have issues like non-office workers relying increasingly on mobile devices to access the web. Ultimately, agencies needed to make their information, services and resources web-accessible and I think that you’ll see the same thing with mobile.

Probably the best approach is to put together a long-term vision and plan for mobile before worrying about specific apps as this holistic approach will ensure that each app adds additional value. For a lot of agencies, it’s really about establishing themselves as a ‘platform’ for their specific mission with mobile simply being a delivery/communications/fulfillment channel.

Back to the crux of your original question – can I create a justifiable business case for mobile apps? I think that you can. The examples that you point to suggest that your focus is on Constituent Integration and Stakeholder Outreach type scenarios. As such, the initial business case is still legitimate – e.g., cost of app v. savings from increased utilization of self-service, cost of app v. reduction in healthcare spending due to healthier behavior, etc. With mobile slated to soon represent over half of Internet traffic, the challenge is determining which functions are best address by a mobile app – intensive data calculations (think tax preparation) might not be as compelling a business case as the ability to check benefits status from your phone in the near future (e.g., mobile devices work much better for content consumption v. content creation). Likewise, you can also look at frequency of interaction. As you can imagine, this gets you to the point where you can determine what percent of your population is being served by which channel, etc. to make appropiate decisions.



I agree in that I think just a mobile optimized website is good enough often.

I think if you are looking to build a mobile app, you have to provide an experience that is unique to the mobile situation. The beauty of mobile is it has very different characteristics than a website. It has a touch screen, it has location built in, it has a camera, etc, etc.

I think you have 3 options:

1-Mobile website optimized

2-Super low cost okay app – you can create super cheap apps that basically put your info online via RSS. Probably wont get huge traction

3-Build an awesome app thats uniquely useful for mobile. This will cost money as takes real skill to define the problem, strategy, and build from scratch

Right now seems like most people are doing #2 option. I’d prefer 1 or 3

Deb Green

Great points Steve and John – And I agree that we can’t ignore mobile – imagine if we’d stopped innovating at the 8-track! There are clear places that are ripe for apps, but they’ve got to be built into a much larger mobile strategy. And as Steve said, that’s costly – – so if you’re going to do it, do it right, in the right places. And make it AWESOME!

Allison Primack

Hi Deb! I agree, it seems kind of silly to build an app just for the sake of “keeping up with the Jones”. However, if there is a lot of information that would be useful as a mobile app, and the app is built well, then I totally support it. To me, nothing is more annoying then finding an app that would otherwise be awesome that is slow, has a bunch of technical issues, or does not contain the info I need. With that said, if the agency has the need and the resources to build the app well, they should do it!

Frank Traylor

Mobile web access is growing exponentially and you can’t ignore where your users are going. At the same time though, app creation has become much simpler. The effort that used to be required forced the creators into a period of deliberation; who will use this, how much will it be used, can I combine it with other needs/solutions, what maintenance will be required, will the app be compatible with changes in systems/infrastructure.

Many apps have been abandoned in the recent app frenzy. I imagine there is also some app fatigue emerging also. I agree with your comment Deb, apps should be components of your global app strategy. It’s best to create fewer and higher quality apps.