Mobile Work Exchange

ATF: In Hot Pursuit of Mobility

ATF: In Hot Pursuit of Mobility

Rick Holgate, Chief Information Officer and Assistant Director for Science & Technology at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives

As a trained chemical engineer and CIO of the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Rick Holgate is well versed in the technical definition and the metaphorical meaning of the term “inflection point” often used to characterize the recent growth of mobile computing across the Federal government.

“There’s this transition from a current state to a future state involving a rapid rate of change in the middle,” Holgate stated during a 2012 FCW Executive Briefing. “That inflection point is occurring today in the sense of moving from the way things used to be yesterday and the way things are going to be tomorrow.”

For Holgate, his statement is not just a vision of what might be, but a roadmap for right now. The ATF is fast becoming one of the government’s leading adopters of mobile technologies, and much of that is because Holgate has played—and continues to play—a high-profile role in helping the Federal government understand and adjust to what he views as a “radical transition” from a closed, controllable enterprise environment to one that is much more open and less predictable.

The latter “is much more readily accessible and we have to figure out how to deal with that,” he said. “How do we appropriately, adequately, securely interconnect all of those services and standards in a way that allows us to accomplish the mission…and also gives our employees the access, the capabilities, and the tools that they need to get their jobs done?”

In early December, Holgate shared his perspectives on the mobility revolution when he addressed the quarterly Mobile Work Exchange Visionary Committee Meeting. During his talk, he provided his insights on the Digital Government Strategy, as well as specifics on the mobility strategy he and his colleagues are pursuing at ATF.

Although many people expected the Federal CIO to provide a specific “mobility strategy,” the broader digital context is intended to be “forward thinking” and enable agencies “to be smarter about the ways that we embrace mobility,” Holgate said, noting that factors such as open data, open services, and improving service delivery to citizens and employees are much broader than mobility. However, he said, the strategies outlined put “a foundation in place for future mobility initiatives.”

The current ATF focus, Holgate explained, is to move forward quickly with mobility – without driving up information technology costs. The agency is moving away from its traditional desktop environment (and will likely disconnect telephone landlines in due course) in favor of implementing a mobile management infrastructure.

Holgate noted that ATF’s workforce already is highly mobile, as about two thirds of its workforce – all of its special agents and industry operations investigators – work in the field today. Having effective mobile devices, applications, and network accessibility can boost productivity, most dramatically by allowing field employees to enter reports and investigative data from wherever they happen to be – rather than having to return to an ATF office to file paperwork. In contrast to laptops, agents are more likely to keep smartphones and tablets with them at all times, enabling continuous productivity when away from the office.

Currently, 2,400 ATF special agents are using iPhones, and Holgate’s team is looking at rolling out the devices to the remainder of the Bureau’s 5,000 employees. The agency is taking advantage of what the device already offers, including the camera, global positioning systems, and downloading capabilities, and is researching how to fully implement additional capabilities to maximize productivity.

Special agents have use of an internally developed explosive incident notification application that allows field agents to report these types of incidents to the FBI using mobile devices, and human resources professionals can manage firearms qualifications tests from the field using another mobile application developed by ATF. Another 200 employees currently are using iPads as part of a pilot project.

“It’s early to note, but the verbal feedback so far has been that the employees love the devices and feel like they are a lot more productive,” Holgate told the Visionary Committee. “For example, we now are able to distribute operational plans in real time in the field, which has proven to be very helpful.”

Telework already is a major part of the agency’s mobility and business continuity strategies, with employees using teleconference and videoconference software that allows access to the Bureau’s Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems and soon Microsoft Office 365 office collaboration software. “This allows us to stay connected to peers even if we cannot see them in person often, which helps us to maintain a level of comfort and connectivity,” Holgate says.

More than 1,200 ATF employees have telework agreements in place, with 400 of those working full-time from home, 180 part-time, 280 once a week, and 450 on an ad hoc basis. Holgate expects that telework will expand even more and “will become the norm as employees have the tools to connect anytime and on any device.”

Holgate has not yet green-lighted a formal Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program, in part due to the ATF’s sensitive law enforcement mission and concerns about overburdening the agency’s virtual desktop infrastructure. However, employees can use their own devices to access agency resources on an ad hoc basis, and contractors who bring their own devices to work are given permission to log onto the ATF network. The latter situation “prevents the agency from having to provide additional resources to contractors,” Holgate says.

Moving forward, Holgate and his team will put their focus on continuing to find ways to improve mobile security, developing new mobile applications that can “be tweaked to apply to specific functionality,” and enhancing mobile device management strategies “in a way that allows a neutral platform for accessing and exchanging information.”

Another core task for Holgate will be to continue to improve digital services as outlined in the Digital Government Strategy, including buying more efficiently and streamlining operations.

In fact, since the release of the Digital Government Strategy, there has been a major uptick in agencies having similar discussions on how and when to implement remote work access strategies that provide tablets and mobile devices with work functionalities; whether or how to implement BYOD programs; how to develop custom mobile applications; and how to leverage mobility initiatives and telework to reduce the Federal government’s real estate footprint and related costs.

These discussions, Holgate says, “will lead to a government that is more open to information sharing and improved productivity.”


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