The three biggest linchpins for the Department of State’s successful implementation of telework across the enterprise each involve longer-term IT investments that the agency was able to make prior to the coronavirus pandemic, and each of those investments has paid big dividends in agency performance since March.

Michael Mestrovich, Principal Deputy CIO at the State Department, discussed the department’s IT modernization journey during the pandemic at MeriTalk’s CIO Crossroads virtual event on Sept. 24, and emphasized how vital IT investments in recent years have allowed the agency to meet its mission goals during the public health crisis.

“To be quite honest, had we not made those investments in the months and years prior, our move to telework would have been significantly more difficult – if not indeed impossible,” Mestrovich said.

He said the most consequential investments for State IT modernization included:

  • Moving to Office 365 for email to have a cloud presence – a process that was 18 months in the making;
  • Implementing an enterprise-wide mobility management suite in 2019 to help manage mobile devices; and
  • Enrolling about 100,000 users in multifactor authentication back in December 2019.

“All of this information technology is designed to enhance the mission functionality of the department,” Mestrovich said.

On the mission front, “I think one of the things that everybody in the department is proud of is that, in the course of this pandemic, the State Department repatriated over 100,000 American citizens from well over 100 countries, and they chartered 1,100 flights in order to make that a reality,” he said.

“They gathered people up from small villages, and they conducted medical evaluations to ensure people weren’t sick, and if people were sick they got the help that they needed. That was a huge endeavor, and that is the mission of the department in addition to diplomacy is serving the American public abroad,” Mestrovich said.

Industry Urges Preparation, Move to Zero Trust

Also speaking during the Sept. 24 webinar were Jonathan Alboum, Principal Digital Strategist for the Federal Government at ServiceNow, and Phil Fuster, Senior Director, Public Sector, at Rackspace Technologies, to provide industry perspective on preparing for crisis.

“You just don’t do this overnight,” Alboum said of preparing for emergencies. “You do have to start in advance of the crisis, and a lot of organizations that I work with were already investing in IT modernization activities and digital transformation activity, so when crisis hit they were better positioned to push forward,” Alboum said.

In addition to investing in digital transformation before a crisis, Fuster said that agencies really need to move towards a zero trust cybersecurity paradigm.

“At this point, I think it’s paramount,” Fuster said of zero trust adoption. “You know, by definition, you can’t trust your employees’ personal devices anymore and so we can’t rely on identity alone. I think we really need to take into account the user, the device, the location, and the data.”

Attendees Handicap Telework, Modernization Trends

Advancing towards zero trust for Federal agencies isn’t the only IT modernization trend we could be seeing in post-pandemic life, according to polling of attendees at the Sept. 24 webinar.

A majority – 59.6 percent – agreed that the pandemic has advanced broader Federal agency IT modernization by two years, while 10.5 percent said it had advanced modernization by five years. 21.1 percent said that it has advanced IT modernization trends by six months, and only 8.8 percent said the pandemic has not advanced IT modernization at all.

Attendee polling data showed that more than one third (37 percent) believe the single biggest investment that Federal agencies can make to prepare for the future is in technology that sustains continued telework. Additionally, 26.4 percent said the biggest investments should come in shifting to cloud services, and 22.6 percent said improvements to cybersecurity should be the biggest investment for Federal agencies. Finally, 13.2 percent recommended Federal agencies make their biggest investments in improving digital service to citizens.

While many agencies have reported more than 80 percent telework levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, a substantial minority of attendees (42.2 percent) predicted that Federal telework percentages won’t drop below 50 percent for at least 12 months, and 23.4 percent reckoned they will never drop below the 50 percent level.

To learn more, view the full webinar.

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Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith
Jordan Smith is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.