How pandemic response is shifting federal IT

The federal government's response to COVID-19 is setting the pace for its agencies' IT futures, said some top managers.

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From supply chain, to acquisition, to automation, the federal response to COVID-19 is changing what IT means to agencies, according to several top federal IT managers.

As the pandemic grew, the Small Business Administration ramped up its telework efforts and surged its personnel and IT to support disaster and small business loan portals, the agency was told there were potential shortages desktop and laptop computers and lagging supplies of peripheral devices such as mice and monitors, according to agency CIO Maria Roat. That shortage, however, didn't slow the efforts down, as the General Services Administration and NASA's SEWP contract had enough to support SBA's efforts, she said, but it showed a potential problem.

With other agencies, including Health and Human Services and the Veterans Administration looking for similar IT gear, "the supply chain on the hardware side was stressed," said Roat during an April 30 ACT IAC teleconference.

Cross-agency teamwork, she said, is a critical piece of such a huge response. SBA's dozens of field offices, for instance, can now rely on IT support from GSA and Agriculture Department IT field personnel because of collaboration through the Federal CIO Council, according to Roat. "I haven't used that yet," she said, but it's helpful to know the help is there.

In setting up its telework and loan platform efforts, Roat said SBA has leveraged software defined networking, collaborative technologies, such as Skype, and Microsoft Teams.

In support of the loan platforms, said Roat, SBA has turned up its Gigabit bandwidth on Ethernet backbone circuits to handle the traffic on the portals. The agency, she said, plans to add more capabilities, as well hone existing capabilities in the coming weeks.

"We're now getting ready for release five" of those portal efforts, she said. The agency will add additional features, such as chat boxes, a way to view active cases and additional workflow refinements, as well as additional personnel, she said.

The COVID-19 response, said Harrison Smith, deputy chief procurement officer, at the IRS, has shown the federal government needs faster, more responsive methods to get what it needs in times of crisis. The pandemic response has shown the traditional 12 to 36 month acquisition planning cycle "is not how we need to do things," he said.

COVID-19 "has underscored the need for us to move ahead in a more agile manner" but also balance that quicker capability with responsible spending, he said.

That could mean making a way for agencies to shift to more creative ways of getting things on the fly, possibly forgoing interagency agreements for say, shared services, for instance, according to Smith.

GSA, said Beth Killoran, the agency's deputy CIO, is learning to leverage drones, data analytics and virtual capabilities to handle more of its federal building management duties. The agency is using geotagged images to track contractors' construction or repair work on its buildings, to save local and federal building inspectors from having to make a trip to sites, she said. The agency is tasking drone aircraft to do exterior building inspections, as well. GSA has also tapped public data of COVID-19 hotspots at federally-owned medical facilities, to inform where its cleaning crews can safely do their work.

Modernized IT, said Roat, Killoran and Smith, is key to responding to such a huge crisis. The workforces at GSA, SBA and IRS, they said, have adapted quickly to telework because they had begun to move toward telework before the crisis.

House lawmakers previously proposed a $3 billion bump for the Technology Modernization Fund in a COVID-19 bill that ultimately went nowhere, but future additions are possible. Roat, who is on the TMF board that approves projects for funding said it's unclear if any new funding will be approved.

SBA, she said, spent 50 intense days planning and executing a plan to implement IT to support public-facing portals and services for COVID-19 response.

"From where I sit, I'd bet other agencies are doing the same" reflection on how to move ahead from here, she said. "How would we use that $3 billion to look at the bigger picture?" Should it concentrate on shared services, she wondered. "Everyone is at home right now. Everyone is digital. We need to ramp up out digital citizen interaction."

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