A recent survey found that 94 percent of supervisors in the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families reported that their social workers are more effective with iPads, says Tomy Abraham.

Jan 20 2015

Workers Hit the Streets with Mobile Devices

Public-sector agencies reap significant returns from equipping staff with tablets.

Caseworkers from the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families are always on the go. Charged with protecting more than 100,000 children each year, they spend their days and nights traveling between homes, courtrooms, hospitals and prisons. When their phones ring at 2 a.m., they’re off, investigating allegations of child abuse. And until recently, they had to drive back to the office after a long day to transcribe their notes into an enterprise case management system.

Last summer, however, DCF workers were able to eliminate that last trip back to the office after the agency distributed Apple iPad devices to all child welfare employees. The move was part of a set of reforms that included reducing workers’ caseloads and providing technology upgrades.

“This move has resulted in increased productivity and collaboration across the board,” says Tomy Abraham, director of business applications for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. “An unforseen benefit is the self-reported improvement in staff morale.”

Mobile devices are boosting efficiency and effectiveness for government workers around the country. According to a July study from the Mobile Work Exchange, 40 percent of state and local employees use mobile devices at work, and 65 percent of IT managers expect that number to grow within five years.

Agency leaders must address several factors before going mobile, such as security and accountability. But first they should determine how mobile devices can bring value, recommends Jeff Vining, research vice president for Gartner. Do they reduce costs, increase production or minimize errors? What’s the return on investment? “Don’t just give people a tablet and let them go,” Vining says. “Think about how they’re going to use it and come up with some metrics.”

On the Case with Mobility

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick last February announced plans to invest $1.8 million to outfit DCF agents with tablet computers. In March, the agency piloted 60 iPads for its after-hours on-call supervisors. Over two weeks last July, CDW activated and configured the rest of the 2,400 devices and sent them to the 34 field offices, then conducted two weeks of training at all of the locations. DCF employees make ample use of the iPads, which run email, the agency’s web-based application and other apps that caseworkers use to assist clients with life skills, such as helping teens prepare for driver’s education tests. Eliminating trips to the office to transcribe notes not only lightens the workload, but also reduces travel costs.

The iPads also enable workers to access critical information whenever they need it. Previously, if they received calls about cases after hours, they would call DCF’s hotline and ask agents to read them information from case files. With the iPads, caseworkers can access information on their own without tying up the hotline.

Employees also use the iPads in meetings and during home inspections. They can take notes and photos and complete forms directly in DCF’s enterprise application. Some even use the device’s video conferencing capabilities. For instance, one caseworker facilitated a virtual meeting between a child and his out-of-state mother via FaceTime. Another used it to testify in court when she was ill.

“Now that I have an iPad, I have more time to get done what I need to get done,” wrote a DCF social worker in a survey conducted by the agency.

Along with deploying VMware AirWatch mobile device management (MDM) software to each tablet, DCF put additional security measures in place.

Only agency-approved whitelisted apps are available for download from a newly established enterprise app store. No consumer data persists locally, and clinical data is accessed from cloud servers. Each iPad is assigned to an individual, who is accountable for keeping it secure. DCF also requires complex passcodes and wipes the device after a certain number of failed login attempts.

Access to Exchange Server is also password-protected, and the system will lock Outlook after multiple failed login attempts. Lost or stolen devices are remotely wiped to keep the information secure.

“The department hopes to replicate an office environment for its staff without the confines of a physical office space,” Abraham says.

Ashish Kakkad

Ashish Kakkad says San Diego County Sheriff’s Department deputies use tablets in the field to look up criminal justice information and obtain situational awareness. (Photo credit: Max S. Gerber)

Working the Beat

Like the Massachusetts DCF, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in California wanted to give its deputies the ability to take their desktops with them, says CIO Ashish Kakkad.

In the past year and a half, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has distributed smartphones and tablets, allowing deputies to choose which device they prefer.

Deputies use iPhones, iPads or iPad Minis to access criminal justice information that reveals if suspects they’re about to approach have arrest warrants, restraining orders or violent histories. They also use the devices to take notes and complete paperwork while investigating a crime scene instead of returning to the office to transcribe notes and type reports.


The number of iOS devices distributed to deputies within the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department

Having access to data also provides situational awareness, explains Kakkad. Deputies can tap geospatial information to see what’s going on around them. For example, they can see if there’s an incident going on around the corner, if a nearby road is closed or where other deputies are in relation to them. He likens it to Google Maps for cops.

Deputies also use the devices to communicate. Not only can they call or text one another, but they can use FaceTime when video conferencing would be beneficial. “They’re using it in very creative ways that we hadn’t thought of,” says Kakkad. For instance, there are apps that help them identify drugs they encounter in the field or that stream video from surveillance.

The team plans to roll out even more mobile apps, such as mapping tools that would provide situational awareness in a building during an active shooter situation.

In addition to the iOS devices that the Sheriff’s Department has issued, the Automated Regional Justice Information System — a criminal justice enterprise network used by local, state and federal agencies in San Diego and Imperial counties, the two California counties that border Mexico — has distributed Android-based tablets to deputies involved in a pilot program testing facial recognition software. The apps help deputies determine if suspects are who they claim to be, and they can compare their images with local criminal databases to pull up arrest records.

Both programs have been going well, says Kakkad. The key to a successful mobile deployment, he adds, is to find services that make the devices invaluable to users — “not a ‘nice to have,’ but a ‘need to have,’ ” he says. “The goal is for these things to become just another part of the day.”

Cutting Back on the Paper Chase

Rancho Cordova, Calif., began issuing tablets to City Council members in 2012 to reduce the cost of creating and distributing meeting agendas, which amounted to more than $17,000 per year for paper, binders, delivery, staff time and other associated expenses. By giving tablets to the 18 council members and staff, the city was able to distribute the agendas electronically, recouping the cost of the tablets within six months, says IT Director Jay Hadley.

The project was such a hit that the city offered to purchase iPads or Samsung Galaxy Tabs for any employee who could cite three ways a tablet could boost his or her efficiency. At last count, 65 of Rancho Cordova’s 70 employees had received tablets, along with a protective case and Bluetooth keyboard. The remainder use personal devices supported through the city’s bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy.

“We took this approach as a way to enhance the technology level for staff and provide better tools to help them to become more efficient,” says Hadley. “Being able to access the information you need from anywhere is becoming almost a requirement to today’s users.”

Employees use apps such as Evernote, check calendars and email and search the Internet without being tied to their desks. The city’s code enforcement division is testing using tablets to conduct rental and code inspections and incorporate notes and photos.

Users can connect to a virtual private network (VPN) to access a virtual desktop on their tablet that replicates their desktop in the office. The tablet and BYOD initiatives also are helping the agency meet its goal of becoming less paper-driven, and employees say having the devices and quick access to information helps them achieve greater work/life balance, Hadley adds.

Hadley’s team protects the devices by allowing network access only via a Secure Sockets Layer VPN. Users access virtual desktops via VMware, and the agency uses Cisco Meraki’s System Manager MDM solution to manage both city-owned and personal mobile devices.

Although Hadley is confident in the security of the devices, he watches for emerging security technologies. “Mobile is a growing market, and there are likely to be new security products customized for tablets,” he says.

Learn more about optimizing mobile devices through CDW’s Technology Insights app at statetechmag.com/TMMapp.

Christopher Navin