Mobile technology can be a powerful tool for both productivity and citizen engagement, but there are implementation pitfalls to avoid.
In a previous column, Jason Salzetti and I discussed the enormous potential of mobile technology to engage citizens as partners in transforming public services. Mobile government also can be a powerful productivity booster for the public sector. But the path from good idea to demonstrable results--especially when it comes to implementing a new technology across government--is littered with implementation failures.
I want to outline a half-dozen steps that government agencies can take to realize the potentially enormous benefits of mobile while avoiding the missteps of previous technology implementations.
Rethink business processes: To realize a big productivity impact from mobile tech, governments will have to change the work. Mobile can reach its potential when public agencies use it to redesign their business processes and eliminate steps altogether. Take Boston's Street Bump app, which uses the accelerometers of drivers' smartphones to identify potholes and automatically report their locations via GPS. The app, in theory, could eliminate the need for engineers to painstakingly survey the city's 806 miles of roadway and gather the data, accomplishing the same thing at less than half the cost. Technology deployed for a particular purpose can be modified for other situations: for instance, tweaking Street Bump's algorithm to report where cars often speed through intersections or to predict where crosswalk paint has faded or lights are burnt out.
Define the problem you wish to solve: Productive organizations don't "go mobile" for its own sake. They have a compelling business objective that mobile solutions can further. Government agencies should analyze how mobile can address their specific challenges. When Michigan's Department of Natural Resources launched its mobile app for last-minute fishing licenses, it was solving a problem--the delay in recouping its money when licenses are purchased from third-party vendors. The agency is partially funded by user fees and cannot afford to let these fees linger in other people's hands. The app made the licensing process quicker and more convenient for both government and citizens.
Adopt a "mobile-first" approach: A mobile-first strategy means making mobile tech a priority, instead of an afterthought, to fully capitalize on the medium's growth and capabilities. It means leading with mobile apps and products, rather than treating them as enhancements or add-ons. When U.S. Environmental Protection Agency CIO Malcolm Jackson announced an agency-wide mobile-first policy, he emphasized that mobile access is rapidly becoming the primary way in which people seek government information. "A lot of people cannot afford personal computers or Internet service," he said, "but they can afford smartphones, and they do not leave home without them." A mobile-first policy should not apply only to new applications but should also require infrastructure designed to replace rather than duplicate existing processes.
Focus on user experience: Mobile apps are used differently than traditional computer applications--while moving or standing (rather than sitting), often in areas with limited bandwidth or intermittent connectivity, and sometimes in harsh environments. This requires careful attention to user experience and design. Involving citizens and frontline workers in the design process can provide valuable end-user insights for more effective applications. Factors such as ease of use, interface, appeal and functionality will play key roles in determining an application's success. The approach should be to design apps that help large populations of regular users and are built around specific experiences.
Prototype, test, prototype again: In the "waterfall" development model that once dominated the world of software development, processes flowed steadily downward, from requirements to design to implementation to testing, and finally ending at maintenance. However, this meant that changes after initial deployment often proved cost-prohibitive. To overcome this, developers shifted to a model that allows for constant evolution through recurrent testing and evaluation--agile development. Agile assumes that we rarely get the design right the first time. Mobile-government implementation should look more like what we've termed "beta government": rapid iteration and scaling to meet shifting needs and demands, through small prototypes and pilots, staged rollouts and allowance for small failures in an attempt to avert larger failures later.
Make mobile a source of security, not a threat to it: When it comes shifting to mobile in government, the discussion quickly turns to the security risks associated with the rapid growth of mobile computing, including possible data leakage over unsecured Wi-Fi networks and privacy breaches due to mobile malware. Instead of being a threat, however, a mobile device can act as a powerful security key with the ability to verify identity, transmit encrypted data or enable access to a particular site or service. The private sector has already capitalized on this trend. For instance, Bank of America's SafePass program provides an extra layer of protection to online banking by texting a six-digit, one-time access code to the user's registered mobile device. It's easy to imagine governments using similar mobile authentication techniques to securely deliver personally identifiable or sensitive information.
Government agencies aren't the only organizations trying to adapt to mobile technology. Many private companies struggle with this as well. But if mobile is a challenge, it is also an opportunity: a chance for the public sector to start closing the productivity gap, reassess its business practices, boost its efficiency and renegotiate its relationship with the public it serves. Used right, mobile can transform government's capabilities.
This column, which is adapted from William D. Eggers' and Joshua Jaffe's new Deloitte University Press study, Gov on the Go: Boosting Public Sector Productivity by Going Mobile, was originally published at GOVERNING.com.