In North Dakota, a similar policy is in the works — its pilot allows iPads and other personal mobile devices on the network, and the state offers classes on how to safely use the devices. North Dakota CIO Lisa Feldner said she was shocked to learn that so many state employees used personal iPads at work; they were using wireless connections provided for guest access instead of connecting through the secure network.     

“Rather than taking the hard line stance, we’re saying, ‘OK, if you’re going to do this, we want you to know it’s still important to keep the network and the state’s resources secure,’” Feldner said.

The state hired a technology instructor from a public school district in North Dakota to teach the classes, which are consistently packed.         

Potential Gains with Personal Gadgets

When it comes to allowing personal devices on the network, some CIOs envision benefits beyond cost savings and employee satisfaction. Feldner, for instance, sees them as important tools.

“A lot of these devices allow people to be more productive, more so than perhaps a laptop does,” she said. “A laptop is a fairly large device, and maybe the battery doesn’t last very long. You can take an iPad or one of the newer tablet devices, have it on your lap and get a lot of your e-mail done. They don’t make any noise, you can take notes and you have a battery life that’s huge on all of these devices.”

Allowing employees to use these machines also is critical to retaining top IT talent, Feldner believes. Contrary to most of the country right now, North Dakota has a thriving economy due to its agriculture and energy industries. The state is home to Microsoft’s second largest campus, and Feldner directly competes for talent with a few nearby IT firms.     

“As you get the younger generation that grew up in the digital age, they expect to be able to use all of these devices,” she said. “They buy them anyway, and they want to use them at work.”

Feldner was also struck by how much faster nontechnical employees learned to use commercial devices like the iPad compared to government-issued laptops. “I don’t know why these devices are more user-friendly,” she said, “but they seem to be.”  

Looking east to Montgomery County, Md., CIO Steve Emanuel recently received some seed money to enhance the county’s mobile IT strategy. Emanuel, who likes using his iPad at work, may use some of his new funds to see if personal devices could reduce his maintenance staff’s workload.

One idea, which is still incubating, is to pay employees stipends to purchase maintenance plans for their personal devices. Since other counties have achieved efficiencies by offering stipends for personal cell phones used at work, Emanuel said stipends for maintaining tablets and other devices might alleviate his help desk’s workload. The incentive for end-users, Emanuel said, would be that they could pocket any of the maintenance stipend they didn’t use. When it comes to connecting the devices to the network, Emanuel said help desk workers possibly could write employee guides based on the similar menu systems used in the various commercial devices.

Emanuel emphasized that employees who take the stipend would be expected to be savvy, educated end-users who can handle most device problems on their own.

“The stipend process would say, ‘We’re paying you to use your equipment. If you have a problem with it, you need to have a plan B,’” Emanuel said. 

Time will tell whether Emanuel’s idea to subsidize private maintenance plans comes to fruition. Some other local officials, like CIO Gary Cavin of Columbus, Ohio, are willing to allow personal devices on the network, but won’t go as far as paying for private maintenance plans. “I can’t say it’s something that’s impossible,” he said, “but for us right now, that’s not the direction we’re headed.”

Columbus senior systems administrator Ivan King said quality control would be too complicated. What would happen, he asked, if the employee broke the personal device? “Where is your service level agreement? Because now that guy has to run to Best Buy,” he said. “Say they’re going to ship it back to Dell. He’ll get a new one in three days, and now he’s not doing anything. I don’t see how that model plays out.”

In North Dakota, the help desk offers technical support on personal devices. The extra work hasn’t overburdened the help desk, Feldner said. “When we started seeing these devices show up, we equipped our help desk with a couple of them so they had some idea that these things were here,” she said.

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.