Federal chief technology officers (CTOs) are working hard on a number of big-picture policy fronts including improving cybersecurity, modernizing technology, adopting cloud computing, and improving the customer experience.

During a recent Federal News Network webinar, Ron Bewtra, CTO of the Department of Justice (DoJ), Brian Campo, acting CTO for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Sanjay Gupta, CTO of the Small Business Administration, and Robert Brown, CTO of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), talked about those and other mission that are topping their priority lists.

Focus on Cybersecurity

During the webinar, the CTOs shared cybersecurity precautions their agencies are taking to ensure their data remains secure.

A top-level takeaway is the role President Biden’s recent cybersecurity executive order (EO) will play in advancing zero trust security architecture – one of the order’s top directives to Federal agencies.

“The Federal government must lead the way and increase its adoption of security best practices, including by employing a zero-trust security model, accelerating movement to secure cloud services, and consistently deploying foundational security tools such as multifactor authentication and encryption,” the White House said in the EO.

The CTOs agreed that zero trust architecture is key to getting the most out of their agency’s data while better protecting the information.  Bewtra stressed that for the DoJ “data remains critical” and his team is currently pursuing zero trust. Campo agreed, saying that for DHS “zero trust is a prime candidate for all of our new technology work.”

During the pandemic, Gupta’s team was put to the test as SBA was tasked with overseeing the distribution of a huge chunk of COVID-19 relief funds. He explained that in March of 2020, then- President Trump tweeted out a link to SBA’s website, which led to a massive spike in traffic from both legitimate users and those looking to commit fraud or cybercrimes.

When his team discovered a significant spike in overseas traffic – despite SBA’s websites being intended for U.S. residents – they turned to geofencing to prevent access from users either looking to commit fraud with COVID relief funds or attempt to hack SBA’s networks and gain access to sensitive data.

Incorporating New Technologies

In addition to prioritizing cybersecurity, the CTOs also talked about their interest in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to streamline workflows and modernize their services.

More broadly, Campo said that his team is asking, “How are we using technology to impact business and missions?” He added that “what we’re trying to do is get out ahead of technology [and] understand how technology can impact our business and mission.” To achieve that goal, Campo said his team is focusing on segment architecture to figure out where new technologies can fit in.

Gupta and his team increased their use of AI and ML during the pandemic, and he said those steps have been “very beneficial to us,” and helped SBA “scale up in unimaginable ways” over the past 18 months.

Along those same lines, the CTOs are trying to incorporate and use data in new ways.

Brown said USCIS’ goal is to provide “data-as-a-service” for individuals in the field, and help employees to “become their own data scientist.” To do so, his team is focusing on showing people in the field how to use data management technology and training them to use products his team has already vetted.

At DHS, Campo is working to figure out how the agency can “fuse data” from different component agencies to “bring it together and make it useful.” He added, “we’re building out data governance principles … and really trying to figure out how does data relate across disparate data sets.” His team wants to understand how different component agencies, as well as the general citizenry, want to use the data.

Migrating to Cloud

Returning to SBA’s success during the pandemic, Gupta praised his team’s efforts and credited much of their success to SBA beginning the migration to the cloud in 2017. Gupta said the move to the cloud is what allowed his team to scale up practically overnight to meet pandemic demands.

Referencing then-President Trump’s tweet, Gupta said that despite the massive spike in traffic, the SBA website was able to auto-scale and meet demand. “Quite frankly if we hadn’t established cloud 2017, and cyber capabilities, I shudder to think about [what would have happened],” he said.

Improving Customer Experience

When asked about their top priorities moving forward, nearly all of the CTOs mentioned improving the customer experience. That said, the aspects of customer experience that they want to improve differed based on agency missions.

Because SBA is so public-facing, Gupta is focused on improving the experience of American citizens. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but for us, it means reaching underserved communities in our initiatives,” he said.

Brown said he is prioritizing human-centered design. He said that “as our staff and customers become more tech-savvy and demand more of us, want to make sure we stay ahead of that.”

At DHS, Campo said he is focused on a combination of improving the customer experience and speeding up his team’s delivery timeline. He said DHS is “trying to reduce the burden we place on our customers, trying to understand their needs, understand how we can get them information quicker, and then how we can deliver that information more frequently.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.