Six months into a highly successful make-or-break campaign to put the Federal government workforce on a remote-work footing to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the hard-won experience of that battle has paved the way for renewed action on broader IT modernization, government and private sector officials said on a recent MeriTalk webinar.

While the rapid government innovation was spurred on by a crisis, Federal agencies now are looking to sustain their work and keep innovating for a post-pandemic future. In its move to telework, the Federal government had to ramp up myriad IT capabilities quickly – think cloud, cyber, and collaboration – to keep delivering on its mission. As agencies look to a post-pandemic future, they now have to consider how they can build on their rapid innovation and create long-term resiliency.

In a recent MeriTalk webinar, Beth Cappello, Deputy CIO of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); John Fanelli, Vice President of virtual GPU at NVIDIA; and Mahtab Emdadi, Regional Sales Director for Dell Technologies, discussed what’s working for the Federal government, what the government has learned thus far from the pandemic-driven changes, and what needs to be done to ensure Federal teams can meet the mission in a telework environment.

Quick Pivot at DHS

Prior to the pandemic, DHS had roughly 10,000 employees working remotely, and in short order, the agency moved to 70,000 remote workers. Despite that radical shift in how its employees were working, DHS had to keep delivering on its mission. “Continuity of operations is a core competency at the Department of Homeland Security,” Cappello explained.

When asked to share her agency’s successes, Cappello offered quite a few.

“I’m very proud of our support of the Homeland Security Information Network,” she said. The information sharing platform is used by DHS’ Federal partners, state and local governments, and other government agencies for trusted sharing of sensitive but unclassified information. DHS saw “north of a 200 percent increase in usage on the platform without a hiccup,” Cappello said.

On top of meeting the unrelenting demands of the pandemic environment, Cappello said the agency has still been able to maintain focus on its pre-COVID-19 goals and plans.

“Continuity of operations also [includes] all other things we planned to do in [Fiscal Year 2020],” Cappello said. “We could have made the excuse that we couldn’t get those things done because of COVID, but we haven’t had to do that.” Not only has the agency “transitioned to telework seamlessly, but we’ve continued meeting all those other objectives and important goals that we set for ourselves at the beginning of the year,” she said.

After getting a handle on the initial surge in remote workers, Fanelli said Federal agency leaders returned to the same objective Cappello discussed: “My real work needs to go on as well.” That meant agencies couldn’t relax their business or cybersecurity requirements, no matter what challenges the pandemic brought, Fanelli said.

Modernization on the Fly

The shift to telework did not exist in a bubble, rather it came along as agencies were looking to make progress on other modernization initiatives. As a result, Fanelli said, agencies have been looking to “marry” the telework initiatives with other modernization projects.

Building off how the response to COVID-19 can dovetail with broader modernization projects, Emdadi said that the sustained telework requirements for most agencies has “created a huge opportunity for innovation and a critical need for getting creative.”

“Our most successful customers used this event as a trigger to kick-start their modernization plans and roll out new platforms to make their remote workers more productive,” Emdadi said.

Dealing with COVID-19 has given agencies the impetus to modernize at near warp speed. “Under normal circumstances, digital transformation is a multi-year journey,” Emdadi said. “But this spring we almost saw agencies achieve it overnight. I think the ones that were most successful had multi-cloud environments.”

As agencies look toward the post-pandemic work landscape, Fanelli said a key part of that shift in mindset is “we are transitioning from enabling work from home to how do you enable business continuity.”

He said that business continuity plans are somewhat similar to remote work plans, “but they have much more strategic components to them.” Business continuity plans have to include assessing different security options, considering how applications are deployed, and determining what type of data center design an agency needs for the long term.

When considering best practices for other agencies to follow, Emdadi said, “Successfully building out remote work environments requires both technical and cultural best practices.” On the technical side, she urges agencies to “really seize the opportunity as much as possible and use this event as a catalyst to jump start your cloud modernization efforts.” She also cautioned agencies to “not take what you own and have today and force it into what you need for tomorrow.” Instead, agencies need to be “very intentional and don’t try to patch up [their] legacy and make it into [their] future.”

Culture and Communications

In terms of cultural best practices – communication is key, Emdadi said. “Make sure you have a platform where you can talk to your team on how to use the new platforms,” she urged.

Cappello echoed Emdadi’s focus on communication.

“If we don’t know how to use our technical capabilities to have continuity of communication and continuity of connection, then I fear we’re going to have more difficult situations to manage in the future,” Cappello said.

“What I’m looking at is how do we train employees to use every bit of the capabilities that we have today, and then what are the other capabilities we are going to need to leverage to enhance communication and connection in a remote posture,” she said. “I think that’s a key component of our success.”

Tying back to the idea of cultural shift, she said there has to be a change in the expectation that agency leaders will see their employees in person, every day. “I think it’s been a great learning experience for some of our most senior leaders, that we can manage a workforce without seeing them every day,” Cappello said.

To get the whole story, view the full webinar.

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