Mobility is changing every aspect of computing in the public sector — from how workers perform their jobs to citizens’ expectations of government services. While the increasing number of mobile devices can create challenges, it’s also bringing new benefits to the public sector and changing the traditional thought process behind when and where work can be conducted.

Microsoft CTO of State and Local Government Stuart McKee, pictured above, anticipates the arrival of a new generation of devices within the next 12 to 24 months and said CIOs will have to set expectations about what the plethora of devices means to their agencies.

In this interview, McKee — who is the former CIO of Washington state — discussed the impact these devices will have on government and how Microsoft’s products are evolving to meet current and future needs.

What is the future of productivity in the public sector and how will it shape the next wave of devices?

I don’t think the future is that unpredictable. I think what we’re seeing is our company’s vision of a PC in every home come to fruition. But I think Bill Gates and Microsoft may have missed it — it wasn’t just a PC in every home, but computing in every pocket, every home and every car and connected to everything else. And that trend, I believe, is going to continue.

I think one of the challenges for government will be trying to maximize the capabilities that are available in this network-enabled world in a way where government employees, assets and resources can be productive for citizens. And I think that’s a real challenge that’s becoming less of a technical problem and perhaps more of a policy issue. The CIOs of the future are going to have to stand up and try to articulate to policymakers why their workforce could be productive in a bunch of different geographies and locations.

How will the proliferation of mobile devices impact government productivity?

On one side it’s going to cause some policy challenges; it already has. Unfortunately all you read about government is that bad stuff in the newspaper. And the idea that a government worker might work from home — as much as people would like to make that happen or know that would be a good thing for a bunch of reasons — among them increasing the workday, let alone decreasing travel and pollution or whatever political agenda you might put on it — but it is such a hard thing for traditional environments to deal with the idea of workers not coming to a central location. So the policy side of it is a big thing.

The other part impacting the productivity is the IT people trying to deal with it because as we have this explosion of capabilities, connectivity and devices, managing it becomes very hard. That’s not a new concept by any means; this is a challenge we have faced for a long time. When you standardize an operating environment, you can create a lot of efficiencies in operating it. Southwest Airlines is a very profitable airline, because they standardized their fleet and operational environment. And when you’re an IT guy and running an IT environment and everybody is bringing a zillion different devices with a zillion different operating systems and capabilities, that becomes unruly and something has to give. A lot of these IT folks are kind of turning their head to a security conversation because they want to enable this plethora of new devices.

How are Windows as well as Office and Outlook evolving to meet current and future needs for the government workforce?

There are three pillars I like to talk about. The first is choice. This is true for government, the private sector and  individuals if you think about how they operate in their personal life. Choice is the idea that Windows 8 is available on a whole bunch of different devices, and it’s very much an open ecosystem.

The second thing is mobility. It’s not just about mobility of individuals, but also mobility of their data. What we’ve done with things like SkyDrive and the capabilities we’re building into the operating system is making it location aware but location independent. The idea is I can have my data and my digital assets anywhere anytime and seamlessly synchronized across devices. … Increasingly I think it’ll be less important to information workers and other workers in general where their physical asset lives. It will become seamless. And I like the word “asset” because we’re talking about documents or spreadsheets or whatever it is. That asset in many cases will live in multiple locations and be synchronized between them.

Mobile assets are important and we want to make sure we enable those. If you have Windows 8, you have your machine and put your USB stick in, and you can create an encrypted copy of a snapshot of that operating system. You can go to other PCs and devices, plug in this USB stick and boot to it, and it’ll create a secure, encrypted operating environment independent of the other things on that machine. … It’s really an interesting mobile scenario, the idea of various governments and just being able to have your operating system in your pocket and not even have to carry a device.

And the last thing — we haven’t forgotten about this — security is still incredibly important to us. … There’s a scenario called trusted boot. When you boot a Windows 8 device, there’s no BIOS anymore — one of the attack vectors, if you will, was around BIOS. Historically you would turn on a machine and it’d load a set of directions to tell the computer how to use the disc, memory, motherboard and monitor bus, and then the operating system would load on top of that. What’s kind of scary right now is viruses that insert themselves below the operating system into the BIOS.

As governments are collecting more information, how can they crunch or crosswalk it across different spheres to be more predictive about where services will be required?

There’s a belief that the more data I produce, the better, and I’d argue the that the more data you produce, the likelier it’s a needle in a haystack. More data is not the answer; better organized data is. So when I talk about big data, I want to talk about organized data, dealing with the large volumes and doing something meaningful to it. A lot of data should just go away — why put it on a disc? There should be an understanding that I’m not going to hoard it because I can, but maybe I should get rid of it because that’s going to help me get to better information.

A great example of big data in the way the processes are working and integrating various types of data is the NYPD. We recently announced a partnership with the police department in which they have a couple of very specific scenarios and one of them has to do with the sensors and real things they have on the streets and their real-time operations capabilities. … The idea is that the data from the sensors they have around the city — from cameras to traffic lights to traffic sensors to temperature gauges to environmental sensors — gets collected in a central area and is digested and processed in a way that allows analysts and city operations people to use that information in real time.

Then the secondary concept is to take some of that data over time and stack it into a different area or set of databases that allow more analytical processing and trend analysis.

What do you predict will be the big tech trends this year?

If I didn’t say Windows 8 I’d probably get in trouble, but I truly believe Windows 8 is going to change a lot of things with the unification of capabilities across multiple devices. I think we’re going to continue to see the evolution and maturing of the tablet space, but our belief is that you’re going to have the convenience of a tablet with the capabilities of a PC. I think that’s something we’re going to see as an expectation for these devices coming to fruition.

The other thing I think we haven’t solved quite yet is the last mile issue, and I have great expectations that this administration at the national level will continue to push some of the broadband agenda. I hope that we’ll see some breakthroughs in networks. Whether that’s some sort of wireless capability, maybe it’s our cellular network, maybe it’s WiMAX, but I expect in the next year we’re going to continue to see not only an incremental evolution in our connectivity but maybe see some kind of really interesting breakthrough.

The last thing on my wish list is batteries. We are long overdue for a leap in battery technology. If you think about not only carrying your phone and your mobile device around and how untethered you can be and for how long, but also for backup and recovery type scenarios. New York’s a great example: Lower Manhattan went dark for quite a while [after Hurricane Sandy], and currently we have to fire up generators and that scenario is very difficult: The generator is only as good as how much gas you have stored. I hope some of that battery technology will get to a time where we’ll have more capabilities.

Photo of Stuart McKee by Jessica Mulholland

Elaine Pittman  |  Associate Editor

Elaine Pittman is the associate editor for Government Technology, Public CIO and Emergency Management. Before coming to Government Technology, she worked for The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.