The Data Briefing: Improving the Federal Government Through Mobile Apps

Jan 27, 2016

Federal agencies are doing well in fulfilling the 2012 Digital Government Strategy by providing numerous mobile apps for American citizens. According to a report from IBM’s Center for the Business of Government, 76 federal agencies have at least one mobile app. As of July 2015, there are nearly 300 federal government mobile apps that provide at least one of the following:

  • General information and news services
  • Client services such as providing and processing government forms
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Health and safety information
  • Educational services

According to the report, mobile devices were one-third of the traffic to government websites, as of July 2015. This will only increase as overall mobile device usage increases in the near future.

Hand with futuristic floating application buttons

Blackzheep, iStock, Thinkstock

However, the federal agencies are lagging way behind in the use of enterprise-focused apps. Although there are numerous citizen-oriented mobile apps, with new ones being released at least weekly, there are very few mobile apps federal employees can use for internal agency processes. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) seems to be the exception (according to the report) as only four other agencies offer one or two mobile apps to help the agency’s employees. NASA has 20 apps that facilitate online collaboration, support teleworking, and provide reference information such as facility maps.

Enterprise-focused apps can help federal workers and agencies in four ways:

  1. Managing agency assets, such as vehicular fleets
  2. Increasing employee productivity by enabling the ability to work anywhere at any time
  3. Supporting field workers by allowing employees to file reports directly from the field
  4. Increasing collaboration and networking among employees and agency offices
A variety of federal mobile apps for citizens seen on an Android smartphone screen.

The challenge will be in balancing mobile app needs of citizens versus federal employees’ needs. Many agencies still face the common challenges of a legacy IT infrastructure, lack of app developers and IT budget concerns. Agencies also have to deal with the strategic challenges of first improving agency processes to build an enterprise-focused app. An improved agency process will make for a better citizen-oriented mobile app, but citizens need the existing services as a mobile app now.

The report closes with three recommendations that may help agencies in balancing the needs of the agency and the needs of the citizens.

  1. Agencies should use responsive design in creating apps for mobile devices; especially new mobile devices such as wearables and virtual reality devices.
  2. Agencies should standardize how they provide open data, such as descriptive metadata and commonly-used data formats.
  3. Agencies should standardize data structure. For example, budget and finance data across the agencies should use a standard structure so that it is easier to mix data from different agencies together.

Mobile apps have transformed how citizens engage with their government. Now, mobile apps can transform how federal employees work to provide government services. There is a vast untapped potential in enterprise-focused mobile apps to revolutionize the federal government.

Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends.

Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.