The Public Sector Considers Mobile-First Approaches to Citizen Interactions

More states and cities are announcing “mobile-first” strategies, but what does that really mean?

by / July 31, 2014

The term “mobile first” was introduced by technology entrepreneur Luke Wroblewski in 2009. The term is an acknowledgment that many — maybe the majority — of users now use mobile devices to access information, shop and conduct various forms of business. A mobile-first strategy essentially means making mobile technology a priority rather than an afterthought.

Until recently, mobile first was primarily applied in the private sector. But over the last couple of years, governments have been building mobility into their IT plans. A number of states, including Texas, California, Georgia, Arkansas and Colorado, recently announced mobile-first policies. But what does mobile first really mean in terms of how an agency does business and operates internally?

“Mobile access is rapidly becoming the primary way in which people seek government information,” said Alan E. Webber, research director at IDC. “Mobile first is about being responsive to constituents and what they want. It’s about designing your sites and services with mobile in mind. In turn, that prompts you to do things — and think in ways — that perhaps you didn’t before.”

Constituents in the Driver’s Seat

Georgia adopted a mobile-first strategy in 2012 after statistics revealed that more than 50 percent of visitors to the state’s child support services website were accessing it via mobile phones. For Georgia, mobile first means that any technology or system the state designs is considered from a mobile standpoint first, said state CIO Calvin Rhodes.

“The majority of constituents now have mobile phones, and oftentimes that’s their only access to the Internet,” Rhodes said.

Arkansas’ mobile-first strategy came in March 2014. Working with e-government provider NIC, CTO and Information Services Department Director Claire Bailey introduced a variety of apps, including tools for obtaining hunting and fishing licenses, conducting sex offender registry searches, browsing the state’s health-care aid programs, and reviewing emergency preparedness information.

State-level Estimates from the National Health Interview Survey, 2012, an analysis conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that Arkansas has one of the highest percentages of wireless-only households (at 49 percent). The fact that nearly half of the state’s population does not have a landline and gets online primarily through mobile devices was a major driver of Arkansas’ mobile-first strategy.

“One important thing about public service is understanding constituents, their needs and access points for receiving services or interacting with government,” said Bailey. “Our goal is to increase operational efficiencies, to make government easier to access and to streamline services to benefit citizens.”

In May, the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) announced the launch of a mobile-first design for, the state’s official website. The site provides access to more than 1,000 online government services. Texas CIO and DIR Executive Director Karen Robinson reports that mobile traffic to the site accounts for nearly 25 percent of total site visits.

Local governments also are getting in on mobile-first strategies. Riverside, Calif., is incorporating mobile-first language into an update of its IT strategic plan. But mobile-first practices have been in place there for several years, according to city CIO Lea Deesing, who also is executive director of SmartRiverside, an initiative to attract technology businesses to the area.  

“The rise in mobile technology has significantly impacted the way city IT does business,” Deesing said. “We have a constant backlog for the development of mobile applications and are in a constant development cycle for them.”

Current city applications include the Riverside Tour Guide, which uses advanced geofencing technology to push photos, audio and text to mobile devices. Residents, visitors and students can take a self-guided tour just by walking within close range of city landmarks.  

Davenport, Iowa, also has developed a number of mobile apps designed to eliminate redundancy, improve transparency and meet constituent demand.

“We recognize that a lot of constituents are using mobile devices, so we wanted to figure out how we could best meet their needs,” said CIO Rob Henry.

For local governments, mobile technology can also be an impactful way to better connect with constituents.

“Mobile technology can help engage people who may not have had that opportunity before,” Henry said. “For example, busy parents that are shuttling kids to soccer practice and can’t attend the city council meeting can use mobile technology to find out what’s going on, air their opinions, etc. It’s allowing more people to get involved.”

Similarly, Riverside offers a Mobile Agenda app, which allows council agenda items to be viewed on a mobile device, and Riverside Resident Connect, which lets residents and visitors report graffiti, potholes, and other problems to the city.

New or Renew?

Not all state and local governments have formally adopted a mobile-first strategy, but most now consider mobile equally as important as other delivery channels. As they adapt to a more mobile world, state and local agencies must determine whether to adapt current content to mobile platforms or start fresh.

Rhodes said his team began by examining the approximately 70 sites hosted on to determine whether they should adapt what they had or create new content.

“We found agencies were more comfortable with scaling back and seeing what we could adapt,” Rhodes said. “Going forward we are creating all new sites with a mobile-first initiative. We now view every piece of content being created with a mobile viewpoint and we also base it on the analytics we pull — what’s the actual phone traffic, desktop traffic, etc., to each of those sites.”

According to IDC’s Webber, integrating mobility into existing back-end platforms can be one of the biggest challenges facing agencies as they move to support mobile device users.

“What are the critical pieces of information to collect and how can an agency design an experience that makes that information easy to enter on a mobile platform?” said Webber. “If you don’t get everything you need the first time through on a desktop platform, you often get an error that pops up and asks for additional data. How do you design that same sort of experience on a mobile platform?”

For example, many local governments have implemented 311 apps to allow citizen reporting of things like potholes or graffiti. But once reports and requests come in, how can a municipality digitize the experience, route it to the right agency, view available resources, assign or bid the work, and notify citizens who reported it that the problem has been addressed?

“Its constructing that value chain that’s the challenge,” said Bryan Pagliano, research director for Gartner.

More than Meets the Eye

Government entities that have launched a mobile-first strategy say much of it is about improving the user experience. In Arkansas, responsive design, which adapts content to the specific device being used to access it, has served as the centerpiece for the state’s digital initiative. Responsive design presents a fully functional website across both traditional and mobile platforms that transforms based on the device and screen size. This approach, gaining traction in the public and private sectors in recent years, helps users navigate quickly and efficiently regardless of their device.

Similarly, Riverside’s recently redesigned Web page functionality automatically adapts to the user’s screen size, letting users conduct their city business using their device of choice. For example, on a smartphone, the left navigation column becomes a dropdown menu and the right column drops below the content. Content then fills the entire screen width for better usability.

Rhodes said the biggest challenge for Georgia has been creating content specifically for mobile devices.

“Our agencies often want to cut and paste from a huge Web page, but that doesn’t work on mobile. Mobile users generally do not like the aspect of scrolling through a large amount of information,” he said.

Beyond the user experience, mobile also has the potential to allow public agencies to redesign and streamline their business processes.

“The real opportunity in mobile is to figure out how you add value to the constituent, either through enhancing online services (such as the IRS’ ability to provide a notification on your mobile device of when your refund is coming) or in changing how constituents are using the service,” Pagliano said.

For example, several states have fish and wildlife apps that allow an individual in the field to pinpoint where the fish stocks are, or to easily report back what they caught or are taking. Pagliano pointed to apps that have added a social component, taking advantage of the fact that people want to share their catches on social media.

“The state integrates that into the app so someone is not only posting on Facebook, but they are also reporting what they caught to the Fish and Wildlife Commission so they can better improve their management,” he said.

Another consideration is how data gathered via mobile apps could interact with additional data gathered outside that specific interaction. For example, the license plate camera on a police car could scan a plate, automatically run it against a database, and find that the plate is going to expire in the next 60 days. The owner could then automatically get a text message or email reminding him that his registration is coming due. The text might also mention a potential smog issue, and suggest the owner handle the problem.

“When we match up the context of a mobile platform and we talk about big data and analytics and the Internet of Things, you can see how a one-dimensional experience with government can shift significantly,” said Webber.

Future Needs and Challenges

Going mobile first also comes with a set of challenges. Unlike private industry, government doesn’t have the luxury of turning off old delivery channels when new methods emerge. While a private company can choose to only deal with customers online, via smartphone or another method, government agencies still have to offer physical offices, phone centers and mail programs. A new delivery channel is a new expense unless an agency can significantly reduce the number of people using other, more expensive channels.

“We are servicing multiple generations of Arkansans,” said Bailey. “In government, even though we may introduce new, more affordable technologies, we still have to make sure other methods of interaction are available for those that don’t have Internet coverage.”

The lack of Internet access may not be the only impediment, according to Webber. Despite the growth in technology uptake over the past decade, the digital divide is alive and well.

“If you look at the bottom 20 to 30 percent of the American population, a lot of them have mobile phones, but they don’t necessarily have the life experience to engage with government across the depth of services that they need on a mobile platform,” Webber said. “One of the difficult things to do on a mobile platform is to provide the additional context people may need to be able to move forward in a process like applying for disability insurance, unemployment or health care. Government has to have the ability to function for everybody.”

Standardization across agencies is another challenge for government agencies. The best tool available two years ago may be obsolete today, so agencies can end up using different tools despite a state’s best efforts at consistency.

“At first we had agencies doing 20 different things and none of them were coordinating,” said Rhodes. “One significant challenge we’ve dealt with in Georgia is trying to standardize across the enterprise but still trying to give agencies flexibility.”

“A mobile strategy is not necessarily easy,” added Henry. “All these different devices cause support issues, security issues, etc. It’s moving faster than perhaps a lot of places can comprehend or manage. It’s going to be a continually evolving process. But mobile is here to stay, and you have to work with it.”

Similarly, recruiting the talent to develop and maintain mobile application infrastructures and stay up to date with evolving technology can be a significant hurdle.

“The tools available are getting more advanced,” Bailey said. “My goal is to make sure we’re using common products, that we have standardized, embedded security measures, and that we’re moving everyone in the same direction.”

Justine Brown Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs