The federal government spends about $1.2 billion each year on mobile devices, yet its agencies are, by and large, not staying on top of tracking the spending, inventory and usage of these devices, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
“There’s a significant opportunity here to optimize the spending in this area,” Carol Cha, director of information technology acquisition management issues, said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. In fact, the Office of Management and Budget estimated a potential savings of $388 million in mobile service contracts between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2015
The GAO looked into the issue of government-purchased cell phones because the Office of Management and Budget hopes to cut down on spending around mobile technology as well as to tack on more efficiencies. Currently the stock of federal government-purchased phones is 1.5 million.
For its report, the GAO honed in on the 15 federal agencies with the highest reported annual telecommunications spending. Inspectors compared the procedures each has in place for keeping tabs on mobile devices with the federal guidance on procedures. Each agency spent at least $10 million on telecommunications in fiscal year 2012 or fiscal year 2013.
“What we found in looking at this is that most of the 15 agencies did not have adequate inventories of their mobile devices and services,” Cha said. “You have to have good information in order to track progress, and what we found was that the federal government in general lacks that information.”
The results showed that just one agency — the General Services Administration — out of the 15 had documented procedures for monitoring spending and checking to make sure that employees with phones were properly using the devices. Three of the agencies examined actually did not have any documented procedures for monitoring mobile device usage, the report states. And in terms of keeping up with inventory, just five of the 15 agencies had complete service and device inventories at either the enterprise-level or at the components GAO reviewed. The remaining agencies either did not have inventories or those inventories did not account for all devices and services.
“Most of these agencies delegated this responsibility to their components, and the extent to which the components had these inventories varied,” according to the GAO.
The major reason for the lax tracking of phones is that agencies tend to take a “decentralized approach” to managing mobile device spending, letting individual employees take care of it.
Four of the agencies studied by GAO had centralized management on mobile spending, while 10 agencies left management to their components.
The State Department, GAO found, had no management at the enterprise or component level.
“The Department of State identified that it just was a lack of a priority for them. And again, that just reinforces our findings that OMB should be establishing very transparent goals for these agencies and measuring against those goals,” Cha said.
Why tracking mobile devices matters for agencies
What’s the possible impact of not having a carefully maintained mobile device inventory?
“Agencies have a limited ability to monitor device usage and determine if a device should be canceled or moved to a more cost-effective service plan,” the GAO states. “Further, without a reliable inventory of mobile service contracts, agencies are less likely to identify opportunities for consolidation, and thus are less likely to achieve cost savings.”
The GAO report also delved into monthly mobile service costs. finding that agencies “paid a range of rates per line for various service combinations, from $21 for 200 voice minutes, unlimited data, and 200 text messages, to $122 for unlimited voice, data, and text messages.”
As a result of the findings, the inspectors recommended that the 15 agencies take action to improve their inventories and control processes. For OMB, the GAO recommended that it measure and report progress in achieving mobile cost savings. OMB and 14 of the 15 agencies generally agreed with the recommendations or had no comment. But one agency, the Department of Defense, partially agreed, according to the report.
The General Services Administration, one of the four agencies with centralized management, was also found to have comprehensive inventories for their devices, Cha said.
Besides the GSA, the other agencies analyzed by the GAO and that have the highest telecommunications bills are: the Environmental Protections Agency, NASA, the Social Security Administration, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security Department, Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, State Department, Department of Transportation, Department of the Treasury, Veterans Affairs Department.
While agencies have different needs for their mobile devices, Cha said GAO was able to identify three agencies using similar mobile plans, but paying different rates. For an unlimited voice, text and data plans, Cha said three agencies were paying anywhere from $69 to $80 to $121 per device.
Cell phones as job enablers
Agencies use mobile devices to provide their employees and contractors flexibility to work anywhere at any time.
For instance, the the Department of the Interior provides National Park Service summer employees, who do not have permanent administrative office space, phones.
And the Department of State gives cell phones to its diplomats, who are responsible for cultivating relationships in foreign countries and promoting U.S. foreign policy initiatives.