USAID is finding that mobile devices help users in far-flung locations around the globe increase their productivity, CIO Jerry Horton says.

Jul 29 2013

Why Federal Agencies Are Building Up Mobile Workforces

The right strategy is essential for federal agencies looking to implement mobile technology.

When you work in Timbuktu — literally — the ability to connect with distant colleagues is crucial. This small city in the West African nation of Mali is just one of 12,000 locations worldwide where the U.S. Agency for International Development operates. From Albania to Zimbabwe, USAID personnel are helping local residents build roads, grow crops, educate children, obtain aid, establish free elections and more — most of it far from air-conditioned offices buzzing with the hum of desktop PCs.

That’s a big reason why USAID has deployed about 2,500 smartphones and tablets to its field personnel, with more on the way, says CIO Jerry Horton.

“As a development organization, USAID needs to be close to local government,” Horton says. “Rather than getting stuck behind embassy walls, our people need to be able to get out and do things. And we’ve found that we’ve been able to save money as people migrate to a single device. A lot of our people no longer use a desktop PC, they just use a tablet.”

Using a tablet allows USAID workers to take advantage of 3G and 4G wireless networks overseas that are often more robust than the connections they can find stateside, he says. That enables them to get work done anywhere — whether stuck in traffic in Lima, Peru, or sitting at a coffee shop in Lusaka, Zambia, for example.

“We get great reception in some of the oddest places you can imagine, like Afghanistan, Haiti and Madagascar,” he says. “Our people can take their tablets out into the field and take pictures of a project, which are then automatically date-, time- and geolocation-stamped. Using a Bluetooth keyboard, they can write their reports on the tablet wherever they are. By the time they get back to the mission, everything has been filed and uploaded to the servers.”

Horton says having a mobile workforce enables a kind of collaboration across vast distances that simply isn’t possible in traditional computing environments.

“Recently, I was working on a document with a colleague that had a one-hour turnaround time,” says Horton. “He was in the field in Ecuador, I was in a car driving across the Potomac to USAID headquarters in D.C. We were able to use Google Drive to share the document back and forth between my notebook computer and his. To be able to collaborate like that across time zones and continents is really fantastic.”

The Race to Achieving Federal Mobility Is On

Like USAID, nearly every federal agency is taking a hard look at mobile computing, says Rishi Sood, a managing vice president for Gartner.

“Federal mobility is red-hot,” he says. “Executives across the government marketplace are looking to understand how to best incorporate mobile devices and solutions into their existing business processes. It’s not a question of if they will do it, but when.”

Going mobile can increase worker productivity, make business processes more efficient and lower the cost of delivering government services, Sood adds. The key to a successful deployment is to ensure that mobile devices replace existing legacy solutions instead of adding cost and complexity to the IT environment. They also must be deployed securely and provide measurable productivity gains for the employees who need them.

Average mobile broadband connectivity speeds will increase 37% annually through 2015.


One big question agencies are wrestling with is whether to allow employees to bring their own devices into the work environment, a practice commonly known as BYOD. USAID is not doing BYOD at all, says Horton.

“We’d love to support it, but we’re still working with our general counsel to address the legal issues,” he says.

The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration is taking the opposite approach, says Travis Howerton, NNSA’s chief technology officer.

“We are beginning the process of moving away from distributing authorized devices and moving into a device- agnostic BYOD environment,” says Howerton. The NNSA is starting with a pool of “virtual employees” who have no office and no government-furnished equipment, including Howerton himself. Instead, they work from wherever they happen to be, using their personal devices and virtual desktop interfaces.

“Our goal is to enable an environment that allows our employees to work anywhere, anytime, on any device,” he says. “We want to provide a culture where work is something you do, not somewhere you go.”

To get there, the NNSA has been updating its existing security policies to embrace mobile devices, scaling its virtual desktop infrastructure so workers can securely access productivity apps and data via the cloud and beefing up wireless access across the agency.

But technology is the easy part, Howerton says. The bigger challenge is to re-engineer business processes and train employees to operate in the new mobile environment.

“We’re tackling each of these issues head-on via the joint DOE/NNSA initiative called RightPath, a collaborative program that focuses on people, process and technology,” he says. “We plan to employ industry best practices and a lean process approach to maximize the benefits of the new technology.”

The Apps Have It

What really separates mobile computing from its deskbound cousin is the ability to boost efficiency using custom apps. For the past year, the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection agency has been running a pilot program using tablets, says CTO Wolf Tombe. While a relatively small number of users have been enrolled so far, ultimately, as many as 10,000 CBP agents will be equipped with mobile devices.

CBP has already begun deploying custom apps — such as the Enforcement Link to Mobile Operations (ELMO) for recording cargo ship manifests — that are making a huge difference in how efficiently it operates.

“In the past, our agents would go through each ship, container by container, checking manifests and writing down the information with pen and paper,” says Tombe. “At the end of the day, they’d have to sit at their computers and enter the data before the containers could be released. That meant all of the ship’s cargo had to wait all day before it could be unloaded. With ELMO, agents can review manifests on a tablet and hit the release button while they’re still on the ship. The agents make fewer errors, they don’t have to enter the data twice, and the shipper can release the cargo throughout the day, enabling just-in-time delivery.”

CBP has also developed consumer-facing apps such as Border Wait Times, which tells travelers how long they’ll have to wait when crossing the border into Canada or Mexico. That app was one of a dozen selected for the White House Digital Government’s showcase of best-of-breed apps.

Finding the Right Path to Mobility

A major paradigm shift from desktop to mobile computing can be difficult for some users to navigate, Horton admits.

“We’ve found that training helps,” he says. “When we moved to Gmail, we discovered that if we train people well, they understand and accept it more readily. We’re not forcing this technology down anyone’s throat. It’s optional, depending on the need of the organization and the individual. If you get people used to the technology, they’ll usually take it and run with it.”

But not always, Horton notes. When USAID first began experimenting with tablets, it used them to replace briefing books carried by top agency personnel.

“I handed a tablet to a high-level person in our agency, he looked at it for a bit, then put it down and said, ‘Honestly, I’d rather have paper.’ I said ‘Fine, we can deal with that.’ ”

Stephen Voss

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