Federal agencies behind the curve: IoT and BYOD

The rate at which technology evolves has increased rapidly in past years. The pace of change presents a challenge to all levels of government that must quickly react to nascent technologies. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are two such technological trends that have transformed how business operates in the United States and should change the way that government functions as well.

BYOD refers to an emphasis on device interoperability wherein organizations allow employees, customers, and citizens to seamlessly connect their own devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, and laptops) to internal networks. According to a study released by Cisco and reported by Forbes, companies can save up to $3,150 per employee by implementing a comprehensive BYOD solution and 95 percent of organizations allow some form of BYOD and 36 percent provide full support of the strategy. Gartner calls BYOD the “most radical change in the economics and the culture of client computing in decades” and expects that, by 2017, half of all companies will have mandatory BYOD policies.

There are numerous issues associated with the shift to BYOD. According to the Aberdeen Group, costs can increase after adoption of BYOD because the organization can no longer access volume discounts. Businesses may also face higher setup, security, and compliance costs. Despite this, numerous anecdotes exist on successful BYOD implementations. For example, VMware, who went “all-in” on BYOD in 2011, reports saving $2 million per year on cell phone costs. IBM has also adopted BYOD, not for the cost savings but rather to support how their employees want to work. IBM reports that 120,000 users are accessing IBM networks through mobile devices and 80,000 of that group are using their own devices to do it.

IoT refers to the growing phenomenon by which “things”—medical devices, thermostats, vehicles, and industrial equipment—are linked to the Internet. Gartner predicts that 26 billion devices will connect to the IoT by 2020 and will add a staggering $1.9 trillion globally in economic value. Pew Research is also bullish on IoT and finds that 83 percent of technology experts agreed that it will have “widespread and beneficial” effects by 2025.

Tech Trends in the Public Sector

Given the size and dominance of these technological trends, we sought to understand how the federal government is responding. To answer this question, we examined the strategic plans produced by each federal agency. As we have previously noted, each federal agency must annually prepare a strategic plan, which describes the agency’s goals, objectives, and other performance priorities (see here for our previous post on federal agencies and cybersecurity). These plans provide a good look to see where federal agencies are planning on devoting their time and attention.

Our results suggest that the federal government is missing critical opportunities to benefit from BYOD or IoT. Only one federal agency —the Department of Veterans Affairs— even mentioned BYOD capabilities saying, “VA will develop and implement strategies to support ’bring your own device’ and ‘use your own device’ to support the increasingly mobile workforces and Veteran population.”

Apart from this outlier, no other federal agencies appear to even recognize the value of BYOD to government. While some government entities might face data security challenges associated with BYOD (e.g. DoD agencies), we would expect the majority of federal agencies to describe clear BYOD strategies. Additionally, given that the federal IT budget is about $80 billion, BYOD can increase the return on investment from these expenditures while improving employee productivity. The lack of strategic foresight when it comes to technological innovation in the U.S. federal sector is striking—money is being left on the table.

The federal government is ignoring the IoT

We found that IoT was not mentioned in a single plan. The failure of federal agencies to adopt new technologies is hard to defend because it can improve government’s ability to deliver services. IoT tools which monitor the health of a federal agency’s assets—buildings, roadways, data centers, and other infrastructure components—could reduce costs, optimize performance, and improve asset management. Moreover, IoT innovations can enable government entities to meet goals established for sustainability, for example traffic sensors could detect when traffic is all coming from one direction and change to green before cars slow down—improving fuel economy.

There are some bright spots in the federal government despite the omission of these technologies in strategic plans. For example, the Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) rolled out 3,500 iPads to its field enumerators to collect and share crop data. According to Michael Valivullah, Chief Technology Officer at NASS, these iPads improved processing and collection speed and saved $3 to $5 million in printing and mailing costs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with two Presidential Innovation Fellows to explore how to use interconnected devices. One team is looking at creating a “closed loop” healthcare system that enables sharing of patient data regardless of the patient’s location. This automatic capturing and sharing of patient sensor data has the capability to streamline healthcare operations.

Change is needed

New initiatives often operate in a M-U-D approach – middle, upper, down. In a M-U-D approach, managers in the field see the value of a technology and then proselytize the value of the technology to upper management before it is adopted and shared with lower level employees. It is clear that managers are seeing the value of these technologies and are likely in the process of convincing upper management of the value in adopting them. It is also clear, based on the absence of these technologies in government strategic plans, that the message has not yet been received.

We believe in the M-U-D approach and think the correct path is to encourage the managers to speak out more boldly about the value of these technologies and to encourage upper management to listen. By sharing success stories, the federal government could catch up with the private sector and adopt the new technological trends.