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Utah Leading the Mobile-Friendly Government Movement

Most state and local governments in the U.S. are stuck in a desktop world with websites and services that don't work on smartphones and tablets. But not Utah.

This year, for the first time, Americans used more mobile devices than PCs to access the Internet. Smartphones and tablets now account for 55 percent of Internet activity, according to the research firm Enders Analysis, and the number of users with mobile devices will only continue to grow. In 2014 alone, smartphone adoption is expected to increase by 19 percent, according to tech market research firm IDC.

This is a big shift in how people connect to the Internet and it's happened relatively quickly, catching many states and localities off guard. Used to having constituents access their websites through a desktop or laptop computer, governments are now trying to figure out how to make mobile access a priority instead of an afterthought. It’s not easy. 

Just a handful of state and local governments so far have designed mobile-friendly websites and services, while governments in other countries have done more advanced work with mobile applications -- especially in developing countries where smartphones are often the only way most people have to connect to the Internet, according to the Center for Technology in Government.

But one U.S. state has taken the lead when it comes to redesigning websites to work effectively on tablets and smartphones and could be a model for other states to follow. Utah was the first state to develop an iPhone app, which came out in 2009 and let users check the licensure status of professionals in the state. It was also the first state to create an app for Google Glass that sends users notifications about approaching trains and light rail and other transit-related information.

While many states might worry about who gets left behind if they aggressively push a mobile-centric way of serving the population, in Utah the problem is just the opposite. It’s the youngest state in the nation with about a third of its 2.8 million people under the age of 18, giving it a large demographic of people who are comfortable with conducting transactions on their mobile device.  

“Our mobile strategy is reaching new population groups that haven’t interacted with government before. That’s why total visits to the state’s websites have grown substantially in the last couple of years,” said Dave Fletcher, the state’s chief technology officer. The state’s website received 1.63 million unique visitors in June -- 26 percent of which came from mobile devices.

Mobile also allows users to have a better experience with government when they're online, according to Fletcher. The state launched a number of apps that give users precise information based on their location. For example, one app allows users to report the precise location of roadkill, meaning the state wastes less time cleaning it up. Other apps serve a range of special groups on-the-go -- from hunters to construction contractors -- to provide targeted services that include mobile payment options. Because mobile technology is where so much innovation is taking place, Fletcher said the state is already investigating ways to use a new biometric fingerprint scanning feature, which will be available on the next version of Apple’s iPhone operating system. “We think it will allow us to speed up logins and improve security,” he said. 

Better user experiences translate into more online transactions, which save money for states. That’s important because while demand for services continues to increase, state and local governments have been slashing jobs. With fewer workers, states are more dependent than ever on online services to fill the gap. The state sees mobile technology as a way to improve the productivity of its workers, especially those who work in the field like inspectors who can now take photographs and link them to the report they file while working in remote locations. “That’s increased their productivity substantially, rather than have them create paper reports back in the office,” said Fletcher.

But going mobile has its challenges. Developers are needed who know how to create mobile apps that are easy to use as well as effective. Governments also need to work with developers to make sure the functions that they’ve built into their websites also work on mobile devices. Security is also a concern. 

In Utah’s case, Fletcher said the state has benefited from the large technology community in the Salt Lake area. The existing population is a great source of innovative talent to address the state’s mobile needs. As for security, Fletcher said it’s about making sure the services are secure for the customers who use them and that the devices used by state workers are secure as well. To handle that, the state has rolled out a mobile device management solution, which is like a toolbox full of software gear that the state can use to monitor mobile devices and services securely.

The biggest challenge for states will be trying to keep up pace with mobile technology, which continues to rapidly evolve. That means training, which tends to be overlooked and underfunded in the public sector. But with more than 50 percent of all employees spending up to half their time outside the office and more than 75 percent of Internet viewing done wirelessly, according to CTG, it’s a situation crying out for government to commit more time and energy to understanding and using technology the best way possible. 

This story was originally published by Governing

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.