Challenges in Turning Federal Digital Strategy into Mobile Reality

By Dennis D. McDonald

Directive number 7 in Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel’s May 23, 2012 federal API strategy Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People states the following:

7. Improve Priority Customer-Facing Services for Mobile Use.
The general public and our government workforce should be able to access government information and services on demand and on any device. To jump-start the transition to mobile platforms, agencies will be required to mobile-enable at least two priority customer-facing services within the next 12 months. This includes services currently provided offline or optimizing those currently delivered online for mobile platforms. Agencies will also be required to deliver information in new ways that fully harness the power and potential of mobile and web-based technologies and ensure that all domains (e.g. can be easily accessed and used on mobile devices. GSA will help coordinate these efforts to prevent the development of duplicative services and support the use of shared solutions to provide the best quality mobile services at the lowest costs (see section 3).
Agencies will be required to engage their customers within three months to identify the highest priority services to optimize for mobile use, and work internally across communications, content, and infrastructure teams to select their final candidates. They will also be required to publish a plan for improving additional existing services as practical.
According to Kit Lane, three agencies have already made progress along these lines: The U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Lane also reports that more agencies will be announcing strategies soon.
Let’s assume this is true, that Federal agencies are taking the “digital strategy” directive as a priority, despite all the doom and gloom about Federal employment levels, threats of sequestration, and the anti-Washington vitriol that poisons the air every time an election rolls around. What are we likely to see in the coming months as far as “mobile-enabling” customer-facing Federal services are concerned?
Here are a few observations:
  1. The focus on “customers” is a good sign. You could also replace this with terms like “citizens” or “taxpayers” but I think the “customer” focus is a good one — people who consume the products and services provided by Federal agencies, defined as American citiziens and the government employees who serve them. Sometimes these services are primarily financial in nature where the money goes directly to the customer or though intermediate organizations such as state or local governments. Sometimes they are services that require much organization ad expense such as medical or educational services. Sometimes they take the form of physical goods as is the case with delivery of food to low income citizens or disaster. The focus here is on consumers not on intermediaries.
  2. The focus on “service” is a good sign. Note that the focus is not just on making web sites accessible on mobile platforms, it’s about improving services whether the web is involved or not. That’s significant since it opens the door for innovation. As suggested here in What Are YOU Trying to Do with Mobile Technologies in the Enterprise? with mobile technology you can focus on (1) doing more of what you’re doing now the same way you’re currently operating, (2) you can focus on doing the same things you’re doing now but only better, or (3) you can focus on doing new things differently. By focusing on services as opposed to the intermediate technologies, thenon how mobile technologies might be used, you increase the likelihood of innovation and improvement.
  3. Internal politics will impact real innovation. Note the sentence in the last paragraph quoted above:“Agencies will be required to engage their customers within three months to identify the highest priority services to optimize for mobile use, and work internally across communications, content, and infrastructure teams to select their final candidates.” It’s one thing to engage with customers to find out what services they really need; it’s another to get all the players within the agency to agree on how best to use mobile technologies in a innovative manner if that requires significant changes from “how things are currently done.” Making current web sites “mobile friendly,” for example, will ruffle fewer organizational feathers than, say, supporting development and testing of a mobile app that makes it easier to distribute program funds so they can be spent at retail establishments accepting smartphone payment systems. The latter requires much more participation of multiple parties and this, traditionally, can lead to delay and political infighting.

Despite these challenges, I’m bullish on where mobile technology is going. Agencies are planning ahead for major increases in their use; the USDA’s Next Generation Mobility blanket purchase agreement is a good example.

Still, I don’t think that agencies really completely understand — yet — how the use of mobile devices will impact their operations, the development of agency-wide “digital strategies” notwithstanding. Even when service-specific apps supporting current programs are the targets, the manner in which mobile devices are used by Federal employees is still evolving. It will continue to evolve.

It’s not like the old days when IT was in charge. The interface between the “customer” and the “provider” is where mobile technologies will be employed, modified, hacked, and tweaked. For some it will be the “bottom up ” model for innovation. Everyone — including IT and agency procurement services — will need to be continuously involved, especially given the involvement of “cloud” technologies and the likely need to interface with legacy systems.

It’s possible to question whether any structured “digital strategy” such as that promulgated by the Federal CIO can actually succeed, given the bad rap that the concept of “strategy” has gotten in recent years with its emphasis on goals, planning, reporting, metrics, and manageable initiatives. What I like about mobile directive 7, though, is that it challenges individual agencies to come up with their own strategies and initiatives via a framework that is fundamentally more sophisticated than a relatively simple order to “buy more smartphones and tablet computers.”

One important question is whether individual agencies are really equipped to handle the changes to processes and procedures that large scale implementation of mobile technologies can drive as people take the opportunity to experiment. Another important questions is whether individual agencies have the resources to plan and manage successful mobile initiatives on their own.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a Washington DC area consultant specializing in collaborative project management and new technology adoption. His clients have included the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Library of Medicine, the National Academy of Engineering, and the World Bank Group. Contact Dennis via email at [email protected] or by phone at 703-402-7382. This was originally published inDennis D. McDonald’s Web Site.

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