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Public CIOs Struggle to Manage Mobility Demands

Smartphones and laptops increase management issues for public-sector CIOs.

Photo: Seattle CIO Bill Schrier. Photo by Amanda Koster.


William Travis, CIO of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), has spent the last several years introducing mobile computing to caseworkers.

Instead of writing progress notes by hand and then entering them into the state's database when they return to an office, caseworkers can access the database in the field and enter notes into the system as they conduct interviews. They also can catch up on their paperwork at home or while waiting to testify in a courtroom.

Now in its third year, the mobility project has brought laptops and mobile broadband access to 4,500 workers in 46 of the 57 counties in upstate New York. "Mobility is now part of their business process," he said. "It has definitely increased productivity in the field."

But it also has forced Travis' office to plan around issues involving real-time field access to applications, encryption, security, asset tracking, field support and human resources.

For instance, to support far-flung workers, the OCFS trained county government network administrators to act as local champions supported by the OCFS help desk. To simplify that support, the agency is gradually eliminating desktop PCs for caseworkers and hooking their laptops into docking stations when they are in the office. "From a technological perspective it makes things easier because we only have one version of what they are seeing at their desktops instead of two," Travis said.

Planning, Security More Critical

To cope with the increasing number of office workers who want to access e-mail and other applications on their mobile devices and field workers, such as building inspectors using customized handheld devices, proactive CIOs are developing mobile policies and procedures as a regular part of the IT strategic plan, said Liza Lowery Massey, CEO of The CIO Collaborative, a Las Vegas-based consultancy.

But sometimes, she added, mobility gradually creeps up on CIOs as more of their employees start using BlackBerrys. "I have seen folks who have so much on their plate that they feel like they can't deal with one more thing, so they just ignore it," Massey said. "There's a lack of planning, and no standards and policies are in place. They are thrown into it and either try to put the breaks on or end up herding cats."

For Steve Chapin, director of IT for North Las Vegas, Nev., a mobility strategy grew out of a larger strategic planning process. In surveys, city employees expressed a strong desire for "virtual office" capabilities, he said.

In response, the city implemented BlackBerry Enterprise Server and standardized BlackBerry devices for mobile e-mail. "I would say we have more control and centralization with the BlackBerrys than with any of our other stuff," Chapin said. "We can wipe them remotely, and find them and inventory them very easily."

Chapin has an information assurance specialist on staff, and employee orientations now include mobile IT security briefings. People who use laptops and have virtual private network (VPN) access to applications get additional training on security. "We are aware of security considerations, but try not to let it stop us from doing things," Chapin said. "Security is job No. 1. You have to take precautions, but don't let it stand in your way."

As much as IT leaders like standardization, the business application has to drive the technology choices, Chapin said. "For instance, our building inspectors have to simply approve or reject an application. It is yes or no. They can use their BlackBerry for that. But our code enforcement staff has to write longer descriptions. For that, we decided they need a ruggedized laptop."

Looking Beyond Mobility to Change

When CIOs push mobility projects in an agency, they must look beyond connectivity and support issues to discuss what business executives really want to accomplish.

"I think many CIOs are proactive, but it depends on how open the agency is to organizational change," stressed Meghan Cook, program manager of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany. "Do they really want to make workers more autonomous or just increase mobility a little bit?"

The concept of telecommuting is becoming more prevalent, she said, but many middle managers in government, rather than focusing on deliverables, have a cultural mindset that if people aren't at their desks, they aren't working. "For instance, no employee of New York City can work from home, period," Cook added. "So any CIO who wants work to be mobile may have a fine line to walk with institutional policies if it is about more than devices in the field."

Seattle Centralizes, Standardizes

Bill Schrier, chief technology officer of Seattle, said centralization and standardization are key to keeping a lid on the city's mobile device usage.

His Department of Information Technology (DoIT) maintains control over cell phones, BlackBerrys and AirCards. "Centralization gives us the size to demand more from vendors," he noted. There are 1,823 AirCards, 893 BlackBerrys and 3,000 employee cell phones used by the city's 11,000 employees.

Although DoIT is in charge of the standards, infrastructure and network maintenance, the mobile application development is done in departments. For instance, the Seattle Police Department is developing its own computer-aided dispatch and record management system with some wireless capabilities.

Despite many requests that the city support iPhones or Windows Mobile devices, Schrier said it has standardized on BlackBerrys. "If you only support a limited range of hardware, it limits the complexity," he said. "I get a lot of pressure to support iPhones because they have neat applications, but so far I have been able to resist."

Schrier is concerned about the potential for data losses from mobile devices. "Because we use BlackBerry Enterprise Server and we are only doing e-mail on it, we feel it is fairly secure," he said. The city has a chief information security officer, Mike Hamilton, who has developed a virtual team across all departments to secure both mobile and desktop environments. For laptops used in the field, Schrier said Hamilton is "fairly draconian" about ensuring they get all the latest security patches.

While the desire of CIOs to standardize is understandable, some analysts say they should consider developing a platform that supports multiple types of devices. "Heterogeneity is here to stay," said Stephen Drake, vice president of mobility and telecom research at IDC. Relatively new mobile operating systems from Apple, Android and Palm have joined Research in Motion, Symbian and Windows Mobile. "So there are six viable operating systems and many more types of devices," Drake noted. "I think an organization that chooses mobile solutions based on a device is working backward. There are platforms that support multiple devices."

Chicago Loves Mobile Apps

Drake also believes that organizations that support mobile e-mail will soon move on to other applications, such as collaboration and enterprise resource planning. CIOs will develop a single mobile platform to serve both customized applications for field workers and access to office applications for road warriors. "Once these organizations have devices and data plans and are pleased with the security level, it is really only an incremental step before they are adding other types of applications," he said. "It is not a huge cost increase scenario."

Chicago city employees are starting to move beyond mobile e-mail. Managers in the departments of streets and sanitation, and transportation are working with outside developers on an application that will let supervisors receive photos, maps and other crucial information via their BlackBerrys.

Chicago has made mobility part of its IT strategic plan, said Hardik Bhatt, the city's CIO. For every enterprise system under consideration, IT leaders look at the mobile possibilities. "For instance, we are looking at a new time-and-attendance system, and we want field employees to be able to clock in where they start rather than having to come in to an office," Bhatt explained. "So we have to negotiate with the vendors about those features." The Department of Innovation and Technology also doesn't want employees having a PC, laptop and phone if they don't need all three. "My office is working on a mobile device policy that will help agencies determine by the profile of the worker which type of device they should use."

IDC's Drake said forward-looking CIOs will start to think about context-aware applications that offer field workers more dynamic information in one view, such as information about traffic on their route or the weather. "That brings a much better value to those employees," he said.