Page 55 - FCW, November/December 2020
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COVID-19 as catalyst
As previous IT investments proved their worth in 2020, the pandemic is prompting agencies to accelerate their modernization efforts
Everything changed when the COVID-19 crisis hit in early 2020 — including agencies’ IT modernization plans. Although certain initiatives immediately proved their worth, allowing for remote work at a previously unimaginable scale, others had to be accelerated or rethought entirely. Stakeholder attitudes sometimes changed overnight, and new budget needs quickly became apparent.
In early October, FCW gathered a group of CIOs and other IT leaders to discuss how the past several months have altered their approach to IT modernization. The discussion was on the
record but not for individual attribution (see Page 57 for the list of participants), and the quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Here’s what the group had to say.
‘Someday’ is suddenly here
Almost every participant described the pandemic as a catalyst for his or her agency. “It has accelerated our roadmap,” one said. Although the technical tools were already in place, workplace habits had not yet caught up — until COVID-19 forced the change. “The pandemic took us to a place in the course of 30 to 60 days where I thought we would probably be in two to three years.... A lot of the cultural and policy changes really accelerated.”
One executive noted how new systems came online in the nick of time. Before mid-February, the official’s agency was “not able to do any sort of telework, and afterward, we were able to do all telework,...the sole exception being the need to access any classified networks.”
Across the group, there were stories of pulling forward modernization efforts that were planned for two, three or even five years out. Even more dramatic were the changes in culture, the participants said. As one official put it, “What are the policies and procedures that an agency has that recognize the ability to work in the world that exists today?”
Another told of joining her agency a few months before the pandemic hit and hearing her new colleagues talk about “someday” changing the way they oversee private-sector institutions so “we don’t have to go into a [firm’s office] and sit in the conference room
for two weeks.” Now, the official said, she’s thinking: “‘Oh, that someday hap- pened really fast.’”
Adapting to new mission requirements
At the same time, many agencies added significant new mission responsibilities as they responded to the public health and economic crises. Some had to spin
up contact-tracing systems for their employees, while others managed massive new programs mandated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
One participant said: “I think two things were happening at the same time” — the pivot to telework and the COVID response. Because agencies’ ongoing modernization efforts had already put the foundational technology in place for telework, the CIOs “could focus their teams on the COVID response and what they needed.”
The data-gathering and data-sharing aspects of the pandemic response have posed particular challenges for several agencies, but those shortcomings could serve as a boost for broader data strategies, participants said.
Several officials also reported a new willingness across their organizations to rethink previously sacrosanct business processes. “We had a lot of interesting conversations with people saying, ‘Hey, because of COVID, we think we can do this thing virtually,’” one participant said. “And there was a lot of, ‘Wait, why
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