FAA officials advised federal agencies Tuesday to balance creativity against security and give users wide latitude to experiment with innovative ways to get the most out of their mobile devices.

Managers for FAA, an agency in the forefront of piloting advanced mobility technology, spoke in a session at the annual FOSE conference in Washington, D.C., which covers range of federal IT topics from mobile government to defense innovations.

The FAA officials offered examples of innovative ideas for fellow agencies to drive mobility “from the bottom up” and urged leaders to let workers compete for inclusion in pilot programs to spearhead well-developed plans for using mobile devices.

My strongest recommendation is that you figure out some way that you can open up the construct of those pilot tests to everyone in your organization, because you have no idea where that killer app or mobility might come from.” – Robert Corcoran

The managers said that while they monitor tablets or other mobile devices and limit downloads during pilot programs, they also allow users to experiment to encourage advanced mobility and the resulting innovation.

“We allow people to have a much free exploration opportunity to what’s out there in the app store. There are 300,000 apps out there, many of which have a positive benefit,” said Robert Corcoran, manager in the architecture & Applied Technology group of the FAA’s air traffic organization. “Does IT control the selection of what apps you are allowed to purchase? No.”

FAA users of tablets such as the iPad do have to sign agreements on how they will use the devices, according to the experts, which also included Pamela McCoy, director of administration in the En Route Oceanic Services division of FAA; Cliff Travis, Manager for quality assurance and reporting for the air traffic organization and technical training, and David Fischer, FAA telecommunications liaison.

Corcoran and the others said they expected a level of professionalism from the employees who are participating in the pilot program with the tablets. He said there are lots of ways to waste time, which are not just limited to tablet devices.

“It should not be IT’s responsibility to defend (against that),” he said. “People who want to waste time will find a way to waste time.”

The upside, the FAA officials said, is that oftentimes, people will do work in their “free” time at night or at home, when they have information easily available on their Ipad or other devices.

“We are already starting to see gains,” McCoy said. “We don’t take notes on paper anymore, we do it on an iPad. It’s not legal for our folks to work outside of hours for free. I do find that people are sitting down at night in their free time to look at those.”

Corcoran noted that in January last year, FAA solicited proposals for why business units within the agency should be part of the mobile device pilot program. He said there were 72 cases made for the use of the devices, from which the agency selected those for the pilot program. He said the advantage of soliciting proposals is that you never know what people might come up with. For example, he said, the agency has seen cost savings in areas such as aviation mechanics, in which mechanics no longer have to “wait in a queue” to order parts, “they do it instantaneously. There’s a cost benefit just from the hours saved,” he said.

In addition, he said, the FAA legal team has saved an estimated $100,000 per case when it comes to prosecuting pilot deviations and air space violation cases.

“The winner in a legal case is the lawyer who is best prepared,” Corcoran said to chuckles from the audience.

He said in these cases, the FAA attorneys were able to play back recordings of the violations that they were seeking to prosecute, so that the defendant’s lawyers could see exactly what their client’s planes looked like during the event. “Most often we reached a settlement at that initial meeting,” he said.

“Don’t limit the scope (of pilot proposals),” Corcoran added. “My strongest recommendation is that you figure out some way that you can open up the construct of those pilot tests to everyone in your organization, because you have no idea where that killer app or mobility might come from.”

McCoy said follow-up is also critical to evaluate whether the uses of mobile devices are appropriate. She holds weekly “brown bag” sessions to discuss what works and what doesn’t. “Training is critical. Without that, people get these iPads and they end up becoming just an email device and we don’t want that. Capture the feedback,” she added.

The officials said they are in the process of evaluating the first round of the pilot program and have come to two general conclusions already: Consumers of information can do most, if not all, of their work from a tablet, while creators of information find the tablet format more challenging.

“You can do it, but it’s not the way you want to do it every day,” said Corcoran.