The Mobile Landscape
Use of mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, is becoming ubiquitous and indispensable in today’s digital society. The ability to connect to the Internet from any location through a handheld device opens opportunities for Texas to expand its services to citizens and gain greater productivity within the government workforce.
Agencies should closely evaluate their environment to understand the business need for mobility to serve citizens and enable employees.
- Citizen-Facing – In July 2011, the number of smartphone owners in America reached 82.2 million. As the rate of adoption continues to rise, it is expected that smartphones will become the majority of mobile handsets by 2015. The exceptional rise in smartphone use should encourage agencies to develop business models to take advantage of this growth.
This priority focuses on strategies for optimizing agency websites on mobile browsers, deploying mobile applications for download, and implementing a text messaging service.
- Employee-Facing – Advancements in the mobile communications industry are enabling the workforce to be productive from remote locations.
- Residential broadband speeds are increasingly comparable to business class speeds.
- Wireless broadband is available in numerous public locations.
- The cost of mobile devices and unlimited data plans are more affordable.
- Improved security features protect users on multiple devices on external networks.
- Cloud offerings enable continuous access from any Internet connection.
This priority focuses on the development of an enterprise strategy and policy for the mobile workforce.
Value of Mobility
Agencies need to develop a mobile strategy that aligns with business needs and creates value for customers. There are numerous solutions that can be developed internally or procured from the marketplace, but not all are cost-effective or ideal for an agency’s unique environment. Some mobile solutions can be easily deployed at little or no cost; others can be complex, expensive, and difficult to maintain.
Some business drivers include
- A generation of young adults is growing up with mobile devices—many of them are students at institutions of higher education.
- A growing demographic of rural and low-income citizens are using their smartphones as the primary device for accessing the Internet—studies estimate they make up 28% of smartphone owners.
- Consumers have an increased expectation to access location-specific services and information in real-time.
- Network speeds have increased significantly, making web browsing on a mobile device more practical and efficient.
- It is common for devices to come equipped with email, calendar, and contacts. Over the next few years, more capabilities will come standard, such as VPN, document editors, collaboration tools, file sharing, web publishing tools, etc.
- Many employees with meetings outside the office need mobile devices to better serve their customers.
- Recent natural disasters increase the awareness to have a disaster recovery and business continuity plan.
- Many employers have a greater sensitivity to providing a more balanced work/home life environment.
Building a Mobile Government
In response to the evolution of mobile devices and mobile use, state agencies should appraise their current delivery systems to determine how mobile technologies can be utilized to meet the expectations of citizens and the needs of the workforce.
Optimization of Websites
Based on the growing trend of Internet access from mobile devices, agencies must consider optimizing their websites for mobile browsers. To optimize websites for the mobile web, agencies should take certain factors into consideration.
- Smaller screen sizes – Very limited display means only a small amount of content can be viewed at one time.
- Information architecture – How information is structured becomes critical to how users navigate the website.
- Data intensity – Web pages should be lightweight so they can render quickly, especially since mobile networks download much slower than broadband and mobile devices have weaker processors than desktops and laptops.
- Website integrity – Web pages should be designed according to best practices and standards. Non-standard coding methods take longer for pages to load.
- Accessibility – Many users with disabilities prefer to use mobile versions of websites because they are often more accessible than the regular version. Designing for the mobile web simultaneously benefits the accessibility community.
Many government entities are building mobile applications. Mobile apps can be more advantageous than mobile websites because apps are built in a very specific, customized, and controlled environment for an enhanced user experience.
There are particular services and applications that are appropriate for mobile apps. In addition to important features such as latest news, event calendar, and payment engines, agencies are learning that mobile apps can also be fun, engaging, and not always mission critical. For example
- A city may have an app with an interactive map to attractions and entertainment.
- A university may have an app to learn and locate campus landmarks and play puzzles with campus photos.
- The Texas.gov mobile app allows anyone to upload a Texas-themed photo to the Texas.gov Flickr page. If Texas.gov likes the photo, it will be displayed on the Texas.gov homepage.
Agencies need to carefully consider what types of apps to develop. Some high-level guidelines for developing mobile apps include
- Apps should be built around function and value for citizens, not necessarily around the agency’s business lines or program areas.
- Citizens need a reason to frequent the apps. If the app is renewing a license once a year, that’s not enough to keep their interest.
- Apps should have very specific uses. Too many capabilities confuse users and complicate the presentation of the app.
- Agencies should take advantage of these mobile features when appropriate:
- Social media integration
- Social media authentication (login with Facebook)
- Push notifications
- Augmented reality
- User feedback
- Most apps need periodic updates. After deployment, agencies should respond quickly with updates when needed. Also, many apps periodically update with new features.
- Agencies should exercise caution with these features:
- Pictures and videos take time to load.
- Data intensive applications can take too long to load.
- Keyboard entry will shrink the already small screen even more.
According to the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of cell phone owners use text messages in some capacity. This is a significantly larger percentage of users than those who own smartphones.
There may be instances when agencies prefer using notification systems to broadcast short text messages to citizens. This style of mobile communication can be advantageous because
- Little effort is required from the users—messages are automatically pushed to their device.
- Messages are sent and received almost instantly.
- The cost is extremely low.
Text messaging services are appropriate for
- renewal reminders
- emergency alerts
- time-sensitive reminders
- short news headlines
- confirmations or approvals
- quick, simple communications with employees
Even though text messages are quick, simple, and convenient, it is best to let the citizen opt in to the service instead of an automatic subscription. It is also preferred to limit the number of messages—unless it is critical during a peak time period (such as emergency management)—otherwise it may appear like spam to the recipient.
Text messages are especially relevant for institutions of higher education. A population that lives and works within a small proximity needs a communication distribution method in a simple and rapid way. Not everyone can check email at a moment’s notice, and other communication channels are too limited. Of course, all methods will be used when appropriate, but text messages should be at the forefront.
Building a Mobile Workforce
There are many trends that point agencies toward mobile devices and telecommuting as part of their organizational strategy. Drivers like business continuity, green IT, and flexible work hours all highlight the need for agencies to consider a mobile workforce.
Some components include
- Virtual private network (VPN) – allows employees to remotely access secured networks from any internet connection
- Remote desktop – allows employees to access a computer from any Internet connection
- Smartphones – used for email, calendars, simple document viewing and editing, and some enterprise applications in addition to making phone calls
- Tablets – larger than a smartphone and smaller than a laptop, tablets perform similarly to a smartphone and can have the option of connecting to a mobile provider’s network
Develop a Strategy
Agencies need to look strategically toward mobile devices to improve how they do business internally. Agencies should develop a strategy that aligns with business objectives. There are many technology tools to empower the workforce, but successful models have cost-effective and efficient strategies.
For example, an agency might promote a mobile strategy by replacing all employee desktops with laptops. However, if only a small percentage of employees need a computer off-site, most laptops will stay docked at workstations, serving the same function as a desktop at a much higher cost.
Some components of a mobile strategy include
- identifying mission-critical business functions that require mobile support
- identifying opportunities to duplicate enterprise applications on a mobile platform
- classifying each employee based on business function
- evaluating vendor offerings and data plans
- creating metrics to measure success
- identifying policy areas to govern employee use
Develop a Policy
With mobile devices, the technology is fairly straightforward, but crafting a well-rounded policy can be challenging. Agencies need to spend time developing a comprehensive policy for the proper use of these devices. The policy should address at a minimum
- public information requests
- record retention
- procurement procedures
- protection of confidential information
- business use on personal device (if allowed)
- personal use on business device (if allowed)
- expectations of employees during off hours
Looking Ahead—State-Issued Phones versus Personal Phones
Some organizations are allowing employees to use personal phones for business purposes instead of deploying state-issued phones. Cost reduction is the primary driver for considering the use of personal devices. Agencies spend a significant portion of their budgets on devices and monthly usage plans. Because of this expense, only a select number of employees participate, even though others might benefit from having a mobile device. If the agency allows employees to bring their own device for work, the agency realizes significant cost savings along with other benefits:
- Employees can choose their own device from an approved list from the employer.
- Employees only need to carry one phone.
- Employees are more proficient using a familiar phone.
- More employees are enabled to work from anywhere.
In addition, agencies should consider
- that more resources will be needed for IT support
- increased security risk to the agency’s network
- the difficulties of managing enterprise applications beyond basic features that come standard with the phones
- that it presents challenges in crafting a sound acceptable use policy
Even though the employee typically pays for the device and monthly plan out-of-pocket, some organizations provide stipends to offset a portion of the cost. Also, organizations incur costs on vendor software for separating personal and business data, increased security software, and remote wipe capabilities.
Overall, this model is gaining popularity in the private sector and there may be opportunities for state agencies to explore this option.