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 USA.gov, 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.
A February 24, 2011 article in Mashable.com examines the private sector costs for mobile app development. Aaron Maxwell, founder of mobile web design agency Mobile Web Up, indicates that a company can expect to spend at least $30,000 in order to design, implement, and deploy a brand-quality iPhone app. Additionally, an October 13, 2010 blog post on ScreamingToaster’s software tutorial website Developer Life, breaks down costs for developing apps for each individual Smartphone platform ranging in price from $10,000 to $200,000 based on complexity and the number of modules created for the app.
Since USA.gov currently has documented 107 functioning apps on its website, the federal government might have already spent $3 million on developing mobile apps. However, due to a lack of transparency, this figure is only an estimate.
Another disturbing trend is that many mobile government apps are being developed specifically for a single platform. More than 40 apps are exclusively available on the iPhone or iPad, whereas five mobile apps are only accessible on Android devices. Furthermore, 44 apps are available on the mobile web, which provides access to the application from any device. Assuming that the apps under development serve a legitimate government purpose, it would benefit taxpayers if developers focused on designing apps that can be accessed on any mobile device.
Many government apps also have limited utility, since they are aimed at specific interest groups, such as veterans, medical professionals, travelers, teachers, job seekers, or smokers. This is especially problematic because taxpayers are footing the bill for mobile apps that they either cannot access or have no interest in downloading.
The lack of coordination has created wasteful duplication in the number of mobile government apps that serve a similar purpose. For example, there are currently two apps devoted to helping individuals with smoking cessation, two apps that track the heat indices and recommend appropriate action to avoid heat exhaustion, four apps designed to evaluate air quality, two apps to assist individuals with stress, three apps devoted to providing dietary and nutritional guidelines, and four apps for finding government jobs. A preliminary search shows that similar mobile apps also exist in the private sector, such as EZ Media’s “Air Quality Forecast” and the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air.” Since these apps are free to download, the government has no business wasting tax dollars on services that have already been made available by the private sector.
In a February 28, 2012 report, the Government Accountability Office identified 32 areas of duplication, overlap, or fragmentation among federal government programs. Mobile government apps appear to be following a trend in government spending, as agencies operate independently and fail to coordinate similar efforts. According to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), “Congress is wasting hundreds of billions of dollars every year because it has created duplicative and fragmented programs, many of which are producing little or no value for taxpayers.” If government mobile apps continue with no oversight, it will only add to the amount of duplication and waste.
One encouraging sign for taxpayers is a new effort to eliminate platform-specific apps in favor of websites for use on mobile browsers. For example, the most recently deployed government app, StudentAid.gov, is a mobile website that users can access from any mobile browser, regardless of platform.
As government agencies move forward with the development of mobile apps, there should be a focus on transitioning to the mobile web with more cost transparency. Taxpayers should not have to worry about their tax dollars being wasted on mobile apps that are inefficient, duplicative, or simply frivolous.
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