Good Government Apps, Bad Ones: When Government Should NOT Be Investing In Mobile Applications


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Interview: Government Apps For Citizens Sometimes A Bad Investment

Q: Robert, you've taken the somewhat unpopular stance that government should be much more conservative in investing in technology that "serves" citizens. Why is that?

Robert Bacal: It's pretty simple. We live in an era where it's easy to forget that we should use technology when it accomplishes something important, and not just because it exists. With the huge hype on mobile and social media, there's a tendency to spend a lot of taxpayer money on technology that is ultimately, a "frill", while at the same time, slashing real employees.

Q: Since we're talking about apps for mobile here that are made for government customers and citizens, are you seeing bad decisions and investments?

Robert Bacal: Yes. Some. For example, there's a list of the "most entertaining government apps" and while it's great to have things be fun, is it the role of government to entertain? I wonder if those apps that made the list actually came from some sound business reasons for the agencies that created them.

Q: Can you give an example of an app that makes sense, and why?

Sure. There's an app produced by Arlington National Cemetary that helps visitors find the sites for their loved ones, or for that matter anyone else located there. Beyond that it helps people navigate a large space so they can get there efficiently, and given visitors may be quite emotional, if they can do this stuff without frustration, without paper maps, and without having to ask scarce employees, to me that's phenomenal.

The app really can make a difference, and not only that, it's conceivable that it can custom the costs for the cemetery.

Q: What about an app that shouldn't have been created?

There's an app created by US Census Bureau that provides real time economic data via mobile. Sounds cool, until you think about it. First, it duplicates existing resources on their websites, that CAN be accessed on mobile anyway. If it's not perfectly displayed on mobile screens, it's relatively trivial to fix that in the website code without investing huge dollars in a mobile app. It really makes no sense.

Another example, and one most will argue about is the NASA Space News app, which is probably the most popular mobile app from government. It's also highly rated. But here's the catch. One could argue that it helps educate on space exploration, but again, isn't this information available already on mobile enabled websites? Or is this a PR move, perhaps to try to pry more funding for the program?

Q: So what you are saying is that if an app duplicates some existing resources, and it's not absolutely necessary to have something tailored for mobile, it's best NOT to do it?

Robert Bacal: Indeed. Or, as is the case with the Arlington Cemetery, the app that provides information essential to the mission of the agency, AND there's a need to make that information available "on site"...that makes superb sense.

Q: Final question: Any Idea what it costs for a government agency to produce a top quality app?

Robert Bacal: No. I've been looking around for numbers but haven't found any. I've seen estimates based on private sector of between $5,000 to up to $300,000, and it's probably much more, since the government has much more stringent security and privacy rules it must follow, and incorporate into their apps.

More On Government Agency Mobile Apps

The 10 best mobile apps built by federal agencies - by John Breeden II
One person's opinion of the top mobile apps created by the US Federal Government. In case you didn't know this: The Obama administration recently ordered all federal agencies to begin making at least two apps as part of its recently unveiled digital government plan, in which it called for "a 21st century platform to better serve the American people. (Views So Far 309 )

Want to work for the State Department - There's an App for that! - by Emily Jarvis
Pretty cool stuff. Do you want to work in the foreign service? The State Department has launched a mobile application to help. The app gives prospective Foreign Service officers a taste of what could be in store for them. Includes an audio interview about the app. (Views So Far 273 )

Using App Technology to Enhance the Customer Experience - Arlington National Cemetery - by Bryce Bender
Arlington National Cemetery has created an app to help visitors find their loved on and associated information while AT the site, or, actually beforehand. Sensible, practical use of technology here. (Views So Far 266 )

10 Most Entertaining Government Mobile Apps - GovLoop - Knowledge Network for Government - by Samantha Holquist
Quick rundown on the most entertaining apps created by government. The key, though is to make sure that while apps can be entertaining, that entertainment needs to be in the service of the purpose of the app, not just for the sake of fun on its own. (Views So Far 394 )

Mobile app design and organization for government - by Emily Landsman
Mobile apps are hot. Everyone's got one, from grocery stores to travel companies to whisky distillers. Last week Rob Giggey began an interesting discussion about whether or not agencies/departments within a single government entity should have their own mobile apps.Should we separate a public library database search from emergency services and general info into their own independent apps or should they be under one large, overarching local government piece of software? (Views So Far 337 )

Want Real-Time Economic Data? Census Launches An App for That - by Emily Jarvis
Probably one of the less useful apps from government, since it's only use is to provide information available on the Census site within an app. My guess is this is a "let's use technology for tech. sake". (Views So Far 278 )

Mobile Government Apps Lack Transparency, Direction - by Aaron Swensen
Since entering the market for mobile apps, the federal government has shown little restraint on deployment and no respect for taxpayers. According to, there are currently 107 mobile apps among federal agencies. Given the scope of many of the apps on the website, insufficient planning has resulted in duplication. Even worse, there is no indication of the cost of development and deployment of these new apps to taxpayers. Given these shortcomings, government agencies must coordinate efforts in order to increase transparency and minimize duplication. There is a threshold question regarding whether or not the government should even be in the business of developing mobile apps. It is unclear if many of the apps serve a legitimate government purpose. Furthermore, there is no indication of the process by which agencies develop apps. If the government is involved in mobile apps, taxpayers should expect both efficiency and savings. (Views So Far 249 )

14 Cool Mobile Apps From Uncle Sam - by J. Nicholas Hoover
Fourteen highly popular apps from the government for android, apple and blackberry platforms. (Views So Far 228 )

American Red Cross Hurricane App: Review - by Christopher Poirier
Not a government app per se, but from the American Red Cross. This app, and others like it help people plan for, and survive hurricanes. (Views So Far 251 ) seeks crime tips via web, text, phone apps - by Daniel Elliott
Apps and other tech platforms are being used more and more to allow citizens to provide crime tips, report problems etc. Here's an overview about just such a program in Dallas. (Views So Far 229 )

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