March 1, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
This report is based on the activities of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals who are working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of digital technology. The program — a partnership between Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues local government IT professionals face.
More than 1,000 government and industry members participate in Digital Communities task forces focused on digital infrastructure, law enforcement and big city/county leadership. The Digital Communities program also conducts the annual Digital Cities and Digital Counties surveys, which track technology trends and identify and promote best practices in local government.
It should come as no surprise to hear that the world has gone mobile. Over the past few years, a cornucopia of wireless devices has poured into the pockets and handbags of eager users — from Apple iPhones and iPads, to hundreds of Android-based devices, e-readers and the Microsoft Windows Phone 7.
As owners become wedded to their wireless devices for everything from communication to navigation, news, games and photography, they expect to use them for work as well. Some 87 percent of private-sector businesses already allow their employees to use personal wireless devices on the job, according to a September 2011 report by Dell KACE, most often connecting to email and calendaring applications.
Integrating wireless devices into city and county operations isn’t a new idea, as public safety, parks and recreation, building and restaurant inspection, and many other essential government functions have long employed mobile technology. The devices, however, have most often been owned and tightly managed by the jurisdiction, and issued only on an as-needed basis for government work.
But the advance of mobility and device convergence has created — according to a 2010 Forbes/Google report — “an unprecedented blurring between working and personal existence.” CNN reported last year that 63 percent of work-related mobile devices are used by employees for personal activities, and many employees also use personal smartphones for work-related tasks. This new landscape is forcing cities and counties to re-examine policies, technology and strategies related to the use of mobile devices in the public sector.
There are benefits to allowing the use of personal mobile devices for city and county work. For example, Gordon Bruce, CIO of the city and county of Honolulu, said that if correctly managed, workers’ personal mobile devices could end up replacing some of the jurisdiction’s desktop computers. “Which means we won’t have to pay for them, which means the taxpayer won’t have to pay for them,” Bruce said. “So I like that idea.”
But managing these devices is a concern, and regardless of whether they are owned by the jurisdiction or by the employee, increased mobility brings increased risk. Malware targeting these devices has grown exponentially, leading one security vendor to call 2011 the “year of mobile malware.” And according to one survey, 77 percent of U.S. cellphone users reported losing at least one such device. The dream of desktop computers bolted to the desk behind a firewall is being eclipsed by the nightmare of staffers talking, texting or Web browsing using a variety of devices on different platforms over unsecured Wi-Fi hot spots.
Most cities and counties interviewed for this special section were still developing and testing various technology and policy approaches to mitigate risk while reaping some of the benefits of mobility, flexibility and anytime/anywhere access. In most cases, nothing terrible has happened, but adoption has just begun.
Oakland County, Mich., CIO Phil Bertolini says a transition to mobile devices is inevitable, but he understands why some jurisdictions reject the idea of letting employees use their own devices for work — an approach that’s called “bring your own device” or BYOD. “They’re bogged down with 8 million other things they have to accomplish, and someone walks in with an iPad and says ‘I want to connect to our email.’ Now what am I going to do? The easy answer is to say, ‘We’re not going to do that.’”
Bertolini saw the trend building and got the county moving early with a few users in pilot projects to test the concept and debug problems while the user base was small. Currently personal devices are only allowed into the system for email or Web apps where the county has built-in security.
Similar pilots are under way in the city and county of Honolulu. “We’re using iPads, Androids, MacBooks, Mac minis, and we’re vetting them through the system to make sure they’re secure,” said Honolulu CIO Gordon Bruce. “The approach we’re going to take with them is something like: ‘Here are the procedures, here’s how you introduce it to the system, but we’re not going to support it. If it doesn’t work, it’s up to you and your carrier to determine how it’s going to work.’ That way we can get it in quickly, and then we’ll see what resources it will take over time to manage it all.”
BYOD requires a rethinking of how things have been done, said Michael Armstrong, CIO of Corpus Christi, Texas. The technology industry’s shift toward virtualized and cloud-based services will make it easier for governments to take advantage of increasingly powerful mobile devices.
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