Federal agencies trying to plot their path toward a mobile future need to be willing to say “yes” to pilot programs even if the outcomes are hard to predict, said Veterans Affairs CIO Roger Baker today in a panel discussion at the Executive Leadership Conference.

But even if agencies move forward to embrace mobile technologies, they must also resolve,” How do we work around interagency silos to share these services,” said Gwynne Kostin, director mobile, GSA Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

While agencies and the private sector continue to wrestle with the challenges of escalating bandwidth demands, enterprise security, and how to manage the multitude of devices and applications, Baker, Kostin, and representatives from the Department of Agriculture, AT&T Government Solutions and the Aspen Institute generally agreed, it was better to get in front of the mobility wave than behind it.

That’s not to say agencies can’t set limits and controls, said Baker.

VA, which recently instituted a pilot program allowing 1,000 employees to test accessing VA networks using mobile devices, is insisting that applications employees use to handle VA data must be able to demonstrate their ability to improve clinical care or veteran benefits, Baker said.

“As we put the program in place, our partners got very focused on the applications…and the verification that the apps are medically meaningful,” he said. “There are thousands of medical apps,” Baker said. VA is looking very closely at which ones warrant putting VA’s stamp of approval on, he said, using an “evidence-based” approach that the applications lead to the right path to treatment.”

He noted, though, how an application for post traumatic disorder got “incredible visibility as an early example of new opportunities that can arise by moving forward into an uncertain future which agency executives might never otherwise have been able to foresee.

“When you start down a path, and you say yes, you find you have no clue what yes means. You can’t predict the future,” making the case for adopting mobile technologies as quickly, broadly and deliberately.

That willingness needs to spread upward and outward, said GSA’s Kostin.

“The reason we work for government is not to protect the enterprise, but serve the public,” she said, emphasizing that agency executives need to the importance for government to “see this mobile boat” and figure out “how do we jump on the mobile boat.”

Kostin lamented that 17 years after the introduction of the World Wide Web, “We barely have web-enabled government,” as a frame of reference for what the future of mobility in government could face if agencies don’t move more forthrightly.

She added, it’s not about developing a mobility strategy, but how to adopt mobility into an agency’s overall strategy.
One way to get started, she recommended: “We have to look at social, mobile and local-SoMoLo” as an approach,” she said.

Nevertheless, agencies must also stay focused on the business case and mission of mobility, said Owen Unangst, CIO Council Mobility, Department of Agriculture

USDA is devoting a significant amount of energy develop a solution architecture that embraces mobility but which is “lean and mean” and puts great attention on “what exactly has to be put on the ground,” he said.

“We try to make sure we have short term deliverables within long term roadmaps.” he said.

He added that USDA is concentrating its attention several core fronts: around device management, application management, data management, security management, and the supporting infrastructure.

How industry will keep up with that mobile demand remains a multi-billion commercial question, noted Jeff Mohan, executive director, Networx program officer, AT&T Government Solutions.

“We’ve seen 8000% growth in data bits over the past four years in mobile,” he said.

Industry is also getting closer and closer to devices that can fully function with dual personas, he said, so that if a device is lost, users can count on preserving personal data even if corporate data is wiped clean.

The real game changer, or killer application for organizations to fully embrace mobile will be a new generation of collaboration applications, predicted Blair Levin, communications and society fellow, Aspen Institute Communications and Society Programs.

When it comes to the killer application, “What is true about mobility, and more broadly broadband: It’s not Facebook, but high performance collaboration,” he said.

For more coverage of the Executive Leadership Conference, see ELC here.