There’s an app for that

When federal employees need to coordinate a meeting, they no longer have to pick up the phone to make a call. Instead, they can access an app on their mobile devices that can share their calendar with team members, coordinate schedules and send reminders. The app even allows users to attach files or documents to the event so everyone has the same material.

More and more, agencies are providing employees with a host of mobile apps that increase productivity and improve collaboration. These productivity apps—mostly commercially available apps fine-tuned for government use—are helping out-of-the-office workers keep on task and remain productive using the mobile device of their choice.

Agencies are also working hard to increase the number of mission-critical apps available to employees. Some are already available. DISA’s DOD Application Store has a few dozen apps available for use, with more coming. For example, service members dealing with sexual assault can use DOD Safe Helpline, a crisis support app, to get immediate help. Residents of Scott Air Force Base can use MyMC2 to keep up to date with services and events, and defense employees now have an app for using common access card (CAC) readers with mobile devices. Many others are on the way; the Army is working on readying mobile apps for supply chain management that eventually will be rolled out to all of DOD. The apps will help track the whereabouts of all military gear.

The possibilities are virtually limitless. Apps that take advantage of GPS for tracking and positioning could help in the areas of intelligence, defense, border control, inspections and emergency response, for example.

Why, then, is it taking so long for the government to be flooded with apps? There have been many audits of how agencies are both acquiring commercial apps and developing their own, and all have come to the same basic conclusion: they often don’t adequately address potential risks, and some use too much bandwidth or other government resources.

Part of the problem is that individual agencies have their own app approval processes, so there is no overall authority or standardization. Many believe that has to change.

Paving the way for more government apps

Federal agencies are taking serious steps to resolve these issues. NIST earlier this year introduced AppVet, a free web-based application that allows agencies to submit and test apps for risk and security issues. The system also analyzes the app to ensure that it conforms to the requirements of the submitting organization.

DigitalGov, run by GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, has a free testing service agencies can use to validate that the app is functioning properly on all relevant devices. Volunteer federal app testers evaluate the apps and provide agencies with results they can use to improve apps’ usefulness.

The Defense Department has its own system. DISA, the lead agency for mobile apps, requires apps to be submitted to its Mobility Application Validation process. Apps undergo capability testing as well as risk and security assessments before being approved and made available for download.

Another interesting offering is DHS’s Mobile Carwash, an offshoot of the Carwash program centered on improving the building, testing and deployment of mobile apps. Agencies that subscribe can access a shared code repository and use an automated orchestration tool to build, test and publish apps. Carwash also provides users with a variety of scans and tests, as well as an issue and risk tracking system.

The number and type of mobile apps for federal employees will continue to grow, especially as standardization and oversight mature. The work on that front continues; in August, the Department of Homeland Security announced intentions to develop a “Seal of Approval” program for apps that can be used by all government agencies. The idea is to create a process similar to how FedRAMP approves cloud-based solutions for government.