How Mobile Apps Are Improving Government Engagement

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More than 90 percent of American adults own a cell phone, most of which are smartphones. On average, we have about 40 mobile apps on our phones, helping us search for things like where to eat and shop, or what the day’s forecast will bring.

Government agencies are getting in the game too. Want to know how to pay for a parking spot? Curious if a restaurant has health safety violations? There are apps that can help.

In 2012, President Obama’s digital government plan instructed federal agencies to create at least two mobile apps. Since then, apps are becoming a new avenue for citizens to interact with the government. In fact, most federal agencies offer at least one citizen-oriented app.

To document the state of mobile apps in the government, the IBM Center for the Business of Government this week released a report by Dr. Sukumar Ganapati, associate professor in Public Administration at Florida International University. In it, Dr. Ganapati outlines two evolving types of apps: enterprise-focused apps for public employees to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively, and citizen-focused apps for public service. He also offers insights on how to design and implement apps within agencies.

Enterprise-focused apps help employees facilitate work needs and solve issues such as reducing administrative burdens, increasing productivity with more accessible tools, managing assets, and encouraging collaboration among different offices. For example, NASA employees working on the same issue in different locations use the same app, ExplorNet, to share real-time information in the field. Collaborative tools can also be used for emergency management and law enforcement.

Increasingly, enterprise-focused apps are also embedded with cognitive capabilities to enable continuous learning about the needs of employees over time – effectively building on data with more use. Doing so helps refine insights on the most relevant information and enhance the quality of their decision making.

Meanwhile, citizen-oriented apps are being designed to put government services at people’s fingertips. With these apps, users can access news and information about agencies’ services and information, as well as, “on the go” services for taxes and other purposes. They can also crowd-source information that users volunteer, such as, how long passengers are waiting in TSA security lines; health and safety information in times of disaster or drug shortages; and fun themes through games such as those from the Smithsonian Institution.

But not everything needs to be converted into an app. The “mobile first” strategy is helping agencies design or re-design their websites to engage with the public to determine which services are important to access from smartphones. After all, having an app to apply for Social Security is different than checking traffic reports several times a day.

When updating their online presence, agencies can create native, web or hybrid apps, all of which depend on the mobile operating systems, access to the Internet and how much funding is available. The key is to figure out the app’s intended users and uses. Dr. Ganapati offers a checklist to help agencies navigate the process.

Dr. Ganapati concludes with three recommendations to enhance the value of mobile apps in the government:

  • Assess ways to optimize online services with mobile to improve public services;
  • Encourage open data policies that help agencies fulfill their missions and assist in creating useful mobile apps; and
  • Standardize data structures so that agencies can share consistent data to improve inter-agency collaboration and reduce customization.

As agencies continue to improve their online services and mobile apps using best practices, we’ll experience new ways to connect with the government that is more convenient and effective – when and where we need it most.

Global Program Manager, Cloud Communications; Managing Editor, IBM THINK Blog

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