CommonTime Enterprise Mobility Blog

Development Platforms Vs. Off-The-Shelf Apps

Councils are under increasing pressure to deliver cost-effective, yet efficient services to citizens, despite budgets being slashed. As a result, councils are evaluating their service delivery models and trying to establish whether they are providing them in the most efficient way possible.

When I worked for Derby City Council, I remember the seemingly endless stacks of paperwork on a day-to-day basis, even though I worked in a leisure centre! I used to have the responsibility of opening up the building and being the manager on duty during my shift, and part of this responsibility included daily health and safety inspections and building checks.

After all, a leisure centre is a public building with customers participating in physical activities and the last thing you want is an unsafe environment. As part of my daily checks, I would inspect every public area within the building, making note of any issues on a paper-based report (that we used to print off ourselves). If anything was deemed serious enough, then I would need to notify external contractors to fix the issue and then log this in a separate logbook, and when said contractor would attend site to rectify the problem, they had to complete their Permit to Work forms before they could start work. I would then need to show the contractor the affected area of the building and sign to say the work had been completed.

All these forms were then kept in a lever-arch folder in a large metal filing cabinet in case they were needed at any point in the immediate future. Now multiply this by the number of working days in the year (except perhaps the contractor call-outs) and you have a lot of paper and a lot of time spent completing the reports, especially when showing the contractors around.

Eliminating unnecessary paperwork and duplication of work is a prime area for optimisation so it is no surprise that councils look at these types of processes as a way of increasing efficiencies and reducing costs.

One way of achieving this is through the use of technology, and as smartphones and tablets are ever increasing in the workplace, mobile apps are being used more frequently for this very purpose.

Thinking back to my days at Derby City Council and the long-winded daily building checks – if this process was digitised, say as an app on a tablet or smartphone, then I could still carry out my checks but I could supplement my checks with additional information, such as photographs or GPS locations of any issues found. I could then automatically send this information to our contractors to fix, and then store all this information on a centralised database electronically. Goodbye paperwork, lever-arch files, filing cabinets, monthly orders for paper and printer cartridges and the time wasted meticulously storing this information in date order! I could then concentrate my work on ensuring that our customers received the best service possible, rather than filling in reports.

Where to Start?

You may have noticed that mobile apps are part of our daily lives, but have you thought about how an app is created? App developers are highly sought after people. Their skills, expertise and knowledge is in demand and as a result, often comes at a premium. Creating a bespoke, mobile application can cost a fair sum of money, but the results can be beneficial if implemented correctly. Imagine the scene, you open your app, do away with all your unnecessary paperwork and duplication of work and happily go about your work in a more efficient way. Fantastic! Welcome to the future! The cost reductions and the more efficient way of working will soon see that return on investment, but what would happen if you could deploy more apps in other areas as a way to magnify the impact?

Off-the-Shelf Apps

For the sake of this article, off-the-shelf apps are defined as apps that come pre-packaged, designed to offer a solution to a process already mapped out. Think of the apps in the app stores – these are pre-packaged, and provide the same result to every user who downloads and installs it.

Going for an off-the-shelf app is a great way of providing a solution, quickly, especially if it mirrors your existing process exactly. By doing so, you are unlikely to need an app developer to create something from scratch, and often these solutions are more “budget friendly”.

Off-the-shelf solutions are also great if you have some flexibility in your service delivery and can make operational changes to maximise the effectiveness of the app. Many off-the-shelf apps are also designed with a back-end system in mind, with data integration being an important part of this. After all, you would not want an app if it cannot send data to and from a data source!

It is easy to see why councils buy off-the-shelf apps; they are relatively inexpensive, quick to deploy and offer a way of improving efficiency and reducing costs rapidly, especially if the apps mirror your operational processes. There are also a number of companies to choose from that offer specialised apps for particular council services already!

However, what if you have a complex operational procedure that cannot change? Or what if your operating procedures change and evolve and the app no longer provides a suitable solution? How about if you have a back-end system that is not compatible with the app, or worse still, you upgrade your back-end system only to find your app is no longer able to integrate with it?

Making changes to off-the-shelf apps can become quite problematic, not to mention costly. Is it a simple process that the app developer can implement quickly and inexpensively? Does the app developer have the experience of utilising different methods of integration so that their app can work with different systems easily?

It is also easy for councils to get carried away with off-the-shelf apps, especially if there is no clear corporate mobile working strategy in place. This means a council could end up with a range of suppliers providing very specific off-the-shelf apps for different services, and managing this process can be challenging!

Mobile Development Platforms

A mobile app development platform is a toolkit that can be used to create enterprise mobile apps, often cross-platform, quickly. Where a council is looking to deploy a number of mobile apps in a range of service areas, then going for a mobile app development platform may be a better solution than off-the-shelf.

First of all, finding off-the-shelf solutions for each and every service area is likely to be time consuming, complex and may not even be possible in the first place! Even if you do succeed and find a solution for each area, then simply managing the number of suppliers involved will be challenging and that’s before you take into account any changes in the future.

Adopting a mobile app development platform as part of a corporate mobile working strategy offers a scalable, flexible and cost-effective solution. The majority, if not all councils now employ people with web development skills (i.e. HTML5, CSS, JavaScript etc.), particularly as there is a growing emphasis on citizen engagement and encouraging members of the public to contact the council via their website.

I read a recent article today about Buckinghamshire County Council and their school placement applications. Each year, the council typically receives around 18,000 applications and a further 29,000 follow up calls from parents seeking information on the status of their application. As a result, Buckinghamshire County Council are looking at a new digital process that provides parents with all the necessary information, including relevant updates at each stage of their application. If successful, this will wipe off several thousand follow up calls and significantly improve the application process.

Obviously this process is going to require some skilled staff in place, and these staff are ideal candidates for using a mobile application development platform as part of a corporate mobile working strategy. By doing so, councils can bring some (or all, if required) of the app development process in-house and can deploy a wide range of mobile applications across the council. Some mobile application development platform providers will also be able to offer support, filling in the skill gaps, where required too (e.g. offering support around integration), and this is something that is not possible with off-the-shelf solutions.

Using a mobile app development platform also offers the flexibility that off-the-shelf solutions cannot. For example, if you need to make changes to the app to reflect operational changes, then a platform approach can do this quickly.

Also, what would happen if a council procured a new back-end system and needs the app to integrate with the new one? Sure, off-the-shelf solutions may be able to do this if you ask the developer, but this will not come cheap. A platform approach also allows councils to roll out as many apps as they like, especially if an enterprise licensing model is in effect, as a way of providing mobile working solutions for a wide variety of services.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that apps are becoming the norm when it comes to effective mobile working practices, and there are plenty of capable solution providers out there. The big question is whether, as a council, you have a process that is mirrored exactly by an off-the-shelf app, and also whether you are looking longer term and want more apps in place for different service areas. It is also essential to consider what the process (and cost) for making changes to your app will look like, especially if your operational procedures evolve as part of your service delivery.

If you are looking for apps to use within multiple service areas, need to be able to reflect operational changes in these apps quickly, have development skills in-house and want the flexibility to scale your approach in your own time, then perhaps a mobile app development platform approach is more effective, particularly when it comes to cost and return on investment.

If the mobile app development platform provider is flexible and can offer support for areas that you need them, then perhaps a collaborative approach is also on the cards and worth considering too.

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Posted by Giles Henshaw

As Head of Marketing, Giles is constantly on the look out for ways of introducing our great technology and fantastic people to aid organisations in their quest for an effective mobile strategy.