How the Federal Tech Community Is Coping With COVID-19

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“The IT leaders in the federal community, our contractor partners and our vendors are stepping up in incredible ways,” Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent said.

As the entire nation attempts to move their work lives home, the onus for keeping the federal government operating is falling on the federal IT workforce.

“The IT leaders in the federal community, our contractor partners and our vendors are stepping up in incredible ways,” Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent told Nextgov Monday. “They are part of answering the question, ‘How can we?’ They’re being bold, they’re thinking forward.”

While the Office of Management and Budget provided top-level guidance, it is still up to the agencies to determine what workloads can be done remotely and which critical missions still require employees to physically show up to work.

In the past, at best, agencies have looked at telework as something to enable when possible. During this emergency situation, the OMB guidance is pushing them to reverse that thinking.

“Start with the frame of what mission—what thing—am I trying to do, and then let’s figure out how we get there,” Kent said. “Asking the question backwards: ‘Why can’t we do the thing that enables continuity and remote work?’”

Kent said, so far, there are only a handful of areas identified that cannot move to telework, such as health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic response.

Based on guidance from OMB and traffic trends, the federal teleworking bubble burst sometime last week, with most federal employees working from home, a senior administration IT official told Nextgov on background. However, the real “work” in telework is expected to begin this week.

“When we look at people signing on remotely, when we see people logging in through a VPN, when we see the number of tickets coming into the help desk from folks getting through that process—I think we saw a lot of that last week,” the official said. “What we are seeing now is people settling in to doing their work—meaning more than just email—I think we’re going to see consistent volumes from now until we’re back at a point where we have more folks back at the office.”

That said, officials expect to see an uptick in telework traffic for the agencies at the center of the pandemic response, such as Health and Human Services and the Small Business Administration.

While most federal agencies had previously tested their telework capabilities in scenarios like snow days or faux-pandemic responses, the reality of the current situation “is very different,” the official noted.

“This is capacity based on an assumption of what I’m going to call an old business model. That business model had people that had to come in. And that business model always had a percentage of the agency, in most cases, for whom there was never that vision. This is different.”

The official cited the Social Security Administration as an example.

“A large amount of their work was conducted at field offices all around the nation,” they said. “Now they’re going to do it via phone. Those are big pivots, and those are places where even the agencies who were ready and had a view had some tweaking to do to consider this different population.”

The official acknowledged that some federal agencies have been against allowing employees to telework in the past. With a mandate to keep people home, those agencies have to reassess that standpoint.

“We’re talking them through all of that change. And when many of them see not only how easy it is but, in some cases, it’s a simpler, more secure process, those are really good outcomes,” they said. “How we manage and supervise work can be done in person or remotely—you just have to be intentional about what that looks like.”

“It’s not that the technology capability wasn’t there,” the official added. “It’s that you have to change the process and you have to get a lot of people to work differently. Some of the things that agencies did was literally to pull operational staff in and say, ‘Let me show you how this works. Let me remind you what you can do. Let me show you how these tools work.’ And people who hadn’t used collaboration tools before now are excited.”

The allowance for electronic signatures included in the latest OMB guidance is a prime example, the official said. While highlighting that policy shows there are ways to do business that don’t require in-person interactions, it also prevents some major potential cybersecurity issues.

“It prevents people from asking—and this really happened—'Can I take a printer home? Because I need to keep doing my job.’ That’s not secure,” the official said. “We had to remind everyone in this new paradigm of all of the tools that they have and what good behavior looks like.”

The government’s two main bodies of IT leadership—the Federal CIO Council and Federal Chief Information Security Officers Council—have been meeting daily on a newly created collaboration site.

“We established a confidential, for-the-community collaboration platform because we’re sharing things really fast. ‘Hey, I have this that I use as a telework guide. Feel free to use it and make one for your agency,’” the official said. “We meet every single day with all the CIOs and CISOs. We go through the guidance, we talk about where they are, what their issues are, if there’s common pain points.”

That collaboration has been an uplifting sliver of hope in all of this, Kent said.

“One of the things that excites me is [the federal IT community] working well with each other and assisting each other—which is not always the case in a federated environment,” Kent said. “I am very heartened by how quickly and aggressively the community has acted.”

And the mass move to telework has shown some wins for the government’s overall IT strategy.

“I actually had one agency say, ‘If we hadn’t moved our email to the cloud, I don’t know what we’d be doing right now.’ It proved all the things that we know and we needed,” the senior IT official said.

Going forward, as the outbreak wanes and life gets back to normal, Kent said she hopes the lessons learned through this ordeal will ultimately strengthen the government’s IT posture and agency leaders’ view of the possible.

“I hope that to the rest of our whole community that they will continue to embrace the tools and the process changes we’re putting forward to make this work and ensure that we are supporting our nation and we are supporting the main mission now” to fight back the virus, “but the individual missions and the continuity,” too, she said. “That’s a great outcome.”