White House tells agencies to take on virtual collaboration, service delivery

dashboards (NicoElNino/ 

Agencies are being asked to look into their existing toolboxes for ways to manage collaboration internally and citizen service delivery as government minimizes in-person interactions during the coronavirus pandemic.

To respond to the national emergency, "agencies are directed to use the breadth of available technology capabilities to fulfill service gaps and deliver mission outcomes," Margaret Weichert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a March 22 memo to agency heads.

For collaboration and service delivery, that means finding applications and tools that already have the government seal of approval – and a federal terms of service agreement — to connect federal employees to their managers and to each other and even to the public.

Weichert's guidance also includes instructions on how to use e-signatures and how to handle access management for facilities and networks for federal employees who are new to remote work or who are newly hired and don't yet have PIV credentials.

"The government’s approach to authentication for the last 15 years has relied on issuance of a smart card containing PKI certificates through a robust in-person process," Jeremy Grant, the coordinator of the Better Identity Coalition and a managing director at Venable, told FCW. "While that has set a high bar for security, it’s not practical in a crisis where it’s not safe to bring people in to a face-to-face setting.  This memo gives agencies some much-needed flexibility."

For a lot of feds who are experienced teleworkers, there is tight integration between their PIV cards and agency networks. But with agencies spinning up telework for feds who have not had much experience, there will likely be a need to support remote workstations without cards and card readers. Grant said that a FIDO security key or, if a hardware token isn't an option, a mobile app that supports two-factor authentication will help bridge the gap. 

The memo also previewed coming guidance from the Office of Personnel Management that allows agencies to delay fingerprinting for onboarding feds taking on mission critical roles.

"This crisis will push agencies to answer the question: does this function absolutely have to be performed in person or on physical paper," Robert Shea, a former OMB staffer and a principal at Grant Thornton, said in an email.

Shea also said that leadership will be needed to map out how to use collaboration tools for agencies that are used to face-to-face interactions.

"It would probably help if agencies anointed someone responsible for maturing the use of collaborative technology and techniques across their enterprises," he said. "Because virtual won’t ever go away, that effort would not be wasted."

Grant said that right now, the lack of a national digital identity standard will inhibit service delivery.

"Many services could be delivered remotely if America had a robust digital identity infrastructure – but we don't – and thus the partial shutdown," Grant said, in reference to the pivot to focus agencies on mission-critical activities. "I expect the need for more investments here to get additional attention in the months ahead."

Contractors at risk

On Sunday the Defense Department announced the death of a contractor who worked at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. It's not clear when the contractor tested positive but DOD did say the DSCA facilities have been cleaned in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and that the individual's co-workers have been teleworking. This is the first reported death of a service member or contractor associated with DOD.

Weichert tried to clear the air for contractors seeking guidance on telework, excusable delays, the status of ongoing repairs to facilities that are closed to the general public in a March 20 memo to agency heads.

"Agencies are urged to work with their contractors, if they haven't already, to evaluate and maximize telework for contractor employees, wherever possible," Weichert stated.

The government is also raising the limits on easy acquisition tools, with the micropurchase threshold rising from $10,000 to $20,000 and the simplified acquisition threshold rising from $250,000 to $750,000. The guidance states that simplified acquisition can be used for up to $13 million for commercial item purchases.

"The availability of the flexibility does not mean it must be used, but agencies should feel fully empowered to use the acquisition flexibilities, as needed, consistent with good business judgment in response to the national emergency," OMB stated in a FAQ document included with Weichert's memo.

This article was updated March 22 with additional comment and information.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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