The COVID-19 pandemic upended some paper-based processes and led to some network bandwidth issues, but the department has weathered the transition well, the watchdog reports.
Employees from various components across the Housing and Urban Development Department reported an easy transition to telework amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in large part due to agency planning in February, according to a report from the agency inspector general.
“Although there were impacts due to mandatory telework, most survey respondents indicated that operations they oversee were only slightly impacted or not impacted at all,” the report states. “However, 22% of respondents reported that processes were moderately or significantly impacted by telework.”
With the majority of HUD employees working from home, OIG auditors conducted online surveys and virtual interviews with representatives from the majority of department program offices.
Overall, 48% said their work was only slightly impacted (18 responses); 30% reported no impact (11 responses); 19% said the impacts were moderately significant (7 responses); and one person (3% of responses) said the impact was very significant.
The IG notes the sample size and methodology don’t make for a scientific study but says the results are useful nonetheless.
“Although the study results provide insight into HUD’s experience with mandatory telework, the methodology used was not intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of HUD’s telework operations,” the report states. “The surveys were intentionally brief to allow for quick responses and timely reporting of the results.”
While disruptions to paper-based processes and issues with network bandwidth and access to devices caused problems, “respondents reported HUD was generally well prepared for mandatory telework,” the IG wrote.
However, “Processes dependent on paper records or processes requiring access to facilities were severely disrupted,” the report states. “Of the 37 survey respondents, 15 indicated that HUD processes were scaled-back, changed or suspended because access to records or facilities was limited during mandatory telework.”
The IG report delves into specific examples, such as the Federal Housing Administration, which still processes some loan applications in paper.
The agency was able to speed up development of the FHA Catalyst system to electronically process insurance endorsements for loans on the front end. However, the “post-endorsement quality assurance loan review process,” which does on-site reviews of FHA lenders, has been “suspended indefinitely,” as it was not included in the accelerated rollout of the Catalyst system.
In the meantime, “FHA’s oversight efforts continued through off-site reviews of electronic loan files and some hardcopy loan files that HUD employees scanned before leaving their offices for mandatory telework.”
Other areas like scheduled trainings, receiving and responding to paper mail, processing documents that require wet signatures and responding to Freedom of Information Act requests have all been put on hold or significantly scaled back.
For programs and projects that were digitized, access to IT resources—including devices and bandwidth—caused the biggest problems.
HUD IT officials began testing the department’s remote access capacity in February as signs surfaced of impending mass telework, and tried to ensure employees would have the necessary devices—laptops, fax machines, printers, etc.—to do their work from home.
Like many agencies, federal policies requiring network traffic to flow through central department facilities led to poor connection quality and slow access. This was mitigated to some extent when the Office of the Chief Information Officer put out a blanket request that employees “avoid using virtual private network connections except when this was needed to access HUD’s network systems or applications,” the report states.
While these and other issues were serious work impediments for those who experienced them, only 12 of 37 respondents reported problems with “network connection issues or access to IT and communications resources,” according to the report. However, “All 37 respondents indicated that IT systems were available to support their work.”
“Overall, respondents reported HUD was well prepared for mandatory telework,” auditors wrote. “One survey respondent summarized this point by stating, ‘Five years ago I don’t think it would have been possible to pick up and leave without missing a beat. But that is essentially what we did.’”
The IG also reported some “benefits to the department and employees,” including increased productivity and reduced overhead costs.
Auditors refrained from offering recommendations to HUD staff, noting the agency’s “response to the COVID-19 pandemic remains fluid and an issue today might be replaced by another tomorrow.” However, the IG did offer eight “proactive steps” the agency could take:
- Continue leveraging agency approved collaboration tools and other technology resources to the greatest extent practicable and appropriate.
- Ensure employees are properly informed regarding the availability and proper use of any new tools and processes, such as electronic signatures or virtual notary services.
- Monitor processes that have been, or may become, negatively impacted by full-time telework.
- Prioritize plans for reopening offices that account for work processes that are canceled or suspended during telework.
- Further evaluate network connectivity issues affecting employees during telework.
- Continue to assess the need for government-furnished equipment such as phones, laptops and peripheral IT devices.
- Consider steps necessary to address cybersecurity risks related to increased use of employees’ personal computers for government business.
- Consider implementing a policy-based routing configuration for VPN traffic to improve network performance and eliminate the need for users to selectively turn off VPN connections.