US federal government departments and agencies are increasingly warming to policies that would allow more employees to work remotely more often, inviting into the enterprise a host of new devices and collaborative applications, according to Rick Holgate, CIO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and a leading advocate for incorporating mobile technology into the federal government.

Holgate said at a US government conference that the feds are "extremely optimistic" about the benefits to emerge from a more mobile labour force, where the technology and work patterns are better aligned with how people use devices and applications in their personal lives.

"That's really what's changed in the last five to 10 years, we've all become much more accustomed to having technology at our fingertips, having our own technology, and having the ability to do things on demand, in real time on those types of platforms," Holgate said. "We're also used to being connected everywhere we are. We don't have to be sitting at a desk anymore to be productive or to be connected or to have access to information and applications."

Mobile government be a more productive government

The Obama administration has identified mobility as one of the leading objectives in its broad-ranging agenda for overhauling the government's IT operations, along with cloud computing, open data and social applications, among other areas of focus. To Holgate, though, mobility is less an end in itself than it is a vehicle to support a more agile, productive workforce able to connect remotely to an enterprise cloud and collaborate with other members of their team.

"All of these administration priorities reflect the importance of mobility and the reality of mobility and how the federal government can move more quickly and more aggressively to embrace and adopt mobility across the board," Holgate said.

In a recent survey federal IT managers said that they expected that always-on access to the enterprise could boost worker productivity by seven hours a week, amounting to an average of $14,000 in projected productivity gains each year. At the same time, a large majority said that they were frustrated by the mobile situation at their agency, citing slow connections, security hassles and inadequate infrastructure as their chief complaints.

Mobility security challenges

Indeed, the feds are well aware of the distinct risks that arise with a mobile workforce, where the long list of challenges includes lost devices, authentication and remote data security.

"Mobility comes with a lot of new challenges that we're not used to because now we're dealing in a much more open, diverse environment than we've been used to," Holgate acknowledged.

But security concerns alone are not an insurmountable obstacle, he argued. In May, the federal CIO Council announced a new set of mobile security standards and a reference architecture to help agencies standardise security in their mobile computing environments. That framework was the product of a joint effort that brought together specialists from multiple departments with a hand in information security, including the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce.

It was, according to Holgate, an unprecedented collaboration.

"That's the first of its kind ever, I would say, in the federal government to really establish a consistent way of thinking about security across federal agencies. That's pretty much unprecedented. Every other instance of security adoption in the federal government has been very much agency-dependent, agency-specific," he said.

"This was the first time that we ever attempted as a federal government to establish a baseline of security across the entire federal government, and one that multiple agencies participated in and agreed to," Holgate added. "And what this allows us to do now is to adopt much more common and efficient solutions because now we don't have to argue over what the security baseline is or what the security controls are that we have to implement."