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Has Federal Mobility Been Derailed? Not So Fast

Flickr user Cory M. Grenier

June 25, 2014 - As Monday's White House summit on working families illustrates, flexibility is at the heart of the Obama administration’s goal of improving work environments for millions of American families.

To some, flexibility can mean the ability to work from home while caring for a sick child or elderly parent. To others, it can mean the chance to get work done on the go so they can be more productive in the workplace and spend more time with their loved ones outside it.

This is of course no different for federal employees. Feds can sometimes feel chained to their desks, with security protocols rendering them often unable to do so much as check their emails away from the office. But with the Digital Government Strategy and other reforms, agencies are working to reverse this perception. Agency leaders are gradually coming to realize that mobile devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets can offer employees greater opportunities to achieve an optimal work-life balance.

According to a new study by Government Business Council, federal leaders rank the “ability to telework” and “enhanced responsiveness (to email, calendars, etc.)” as the top benefits of mobile technology in the federal workplace, a clear indication as to the value that feds place on flexibility.* These findings also seem to cast doubt on claims that interest in mobility is driven largely by the need to boost morale; respondents rank “job satisfaction/morale” at the bottom of the list.

But this isn't to say that mobility doesn’t factor into morale. Federal employees – like their counterparts in the private sector – are inclined to see mobility as a desirable feature in any modern work environment. Mobile Work Exchange found that 88 percent of federal human resource managers report to have seen employees leave their jobs because agencies can’t meet their flexibility needs, while 54 percent have missed out on hiring top talent for the same reason.

Nevertheless, the same GBC study found that 59 percent of feds say they have to sacrifice flexibility for the sake of security. Certainly many have raised concerns as to the risks posed by mobile malware, unsecured mobile apps, and careless use of mobile devices. Others question how cash-strapped agencies are going to pay to equip their employees with state-of-the-art devices and mobile device management solutions.

GBC found that just 18 percent of feds consider expanding mobility as “essential” or a “high priority," while 42 percent view it as a “low priority” or “not a priority."** But does this mean that mobility is coming to a screeching halt?

In the grand scheme of things, not so much.

First of all, the picture looks a little different when you ask the question of federal leaders most likely to be involved in ongoing IT modernization projects. In a March 2014 GBC poll of IT managers at the GS-14 level and up, respondents ranked “mobility/mobile security” second in terms of top federal IT priorities in 2014, tied with “shared services."* Mobility also topped other major initiatives like cloud computing, data center consolidation, and preventing insider threats.

Second, it is important to keep in mind that the idea of expanding federal mobility entails both increasing the number of employees with access to mobile technology, as well as enhancing what they can do with those mobile devices.

In terms of making mobility available to more of the federal workforce, estimates by GBC and Mobile Work Exchange put the percentage of feds with access to mobility in the range of 72-90 percent and growing. If spending is any indication, the International Data Corporation projects federal spending on mobile hardware, data, and wireless services to reach $9.1 billion by 2017 – a ten percent increase from $8.3 billion in 2014.

Historically, the greatest challenge has come from the defense and security communities, which are more likely to consider their operations too sensitive for mobile technology. However, recent procurement figures actually indicate a reversal in this trend. In May, DISA approved the use of Android smartphones on DoD networks, broadening the options available for defense agencies interested in a mobile workforce. Similarly, just last week the FBI announced its intent to purchase 26,500 new smartphones and MDM licenses to run on its secure networks.

Perhaps a greater challenge has been the fact that, until recently, security concerns have limited the variety of functions accessible to government employees on mobile devices. But with the advent of mobile security technologies like MDM and containerization, agencies are gaining confidence in allowing their employees to do more than just check email and calendars.

Digital Government Strategy Milestone 5.4, launched in May 2013, encourages federal agencies to explore the potential of commercial mobile applications to improve operations like disaster recovery and field work. Agencies like FEMA and the U.S. Census Bureau are already experimenting with mobile apps, while DISA will expand its selection of secure apps for defense users and set a target of 100,000 MDM users by September. 

In short, federal employees look to mobile technology as an essential tool and agencies are taking notice. Despite security concerns and budgetary constraints, the data seems to confirm that federal leaders are proceeding with the Digital Government Strategy with cautious optimism. 

*The figures depicted in both bar graphs represent the reciprocal (1/x) of that answer choice's ranked mean as given by federal managers.

**Among federal managers most likely to lead IT modernization efforts (GS-14 and up, and those who self report as “agency leadership," “technology management," or “acquisition management”) 22 percent view mobile expansion as “essential” or “high priority," and 35 percent a “low priority” or “not a priority." n=31

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This post is written by Government Business Council; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Government Executive Media Group's editorial staff. For more information, see our advertising guidelines.