An Old Agency Learns New Tricks: SBA’s Transformation During COVID-19

At 67 years old, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has seen a lot – hurricanes, tornadoes and economic downturns. But in its long life of administering economic stimulus programs, SBA had never experienced anything resembling COVID-19.

With the provisions of the Coronavirus Assistance, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, SBA has pushed out more funds in the past four months than it had in all of its history put together. The $376 billion the CARES Act sets aside for small businesses and American workers dwarfs previous SBA aid packages.

In response, SBA has undergone digital transformation projects at breakneck speed. SBA, which is the smallest agency listed on the president’s budget, has onboarded thousands of new employees remotely to meet demands.

“Being old doesn’t mean you don’t innovate,” Guy Cavallo, Deputy Chief Information Officer at SBA, said at GovLoop’s virtual summit Thursday, hosted in partnership with Dell and Carahsoft.

Cavallo, a long-serving technologist in the government IT space, meant the comment as a joke about his own age. But jokes aside, Cavallo, who’s widely acknowledged as a leader for forward-thinking government digital missions, has pushed a necessarily ambitious and modern technology agenda to meet SBA’s expanded role.

Notably, the cloud has been Cavallo’s technology of choice for digital transformation. SBA has phased in cloud, which refers to technology resources that are available online and kept off premises, as its standard infrastructure over the past few years.

Good thing it did too, Cavallo said. When President Trump tweeted out a link to the Small Business Administration website in early April, tens of thousands of people clicked at once. SBA’s website, which routinely has 600 to 700 visitors at a time, spiked to 93,000 people online, a rush that would have crashed an on-premise system even with a ready-to-go maintenance team.

On the cloud, however, SBA enabled an auto-scale feature so that website capacity expanded and contracted in line with website visitors. Performance even improved with the surge because more visitors fed into the cache, Cavallo said.

Still, SBA – in the middle of a yearslong digital transformation journey – didn’t have everything prepared. The on-premise portal for the Disaster Loan Application Program buckled under pressure and went offline.

Cavallo and his team quickly spun up a cloud storage solution as a Band-Aid before finalizing a more permanent cloud-hosted portal about a week later – a markedly short turnaround for government technology projects.

“Where we were in the cloud, we were able to scale up and meet the load,” Cavallo said. “Where we weren’t in the cloud, we had massive problems.”

Though SBA has received external criticism from lawmakers about loan application wait times, the agency has moved quickly in most tech-related areas. In onboarding new employees, it secured permission from the White House to immediately purchase 3,000 laptops, which were in short supply at the time and only available on a waiting list.

Four months into the pandemic, SBA is a totally different enterprise than it was before COVID-19. The organization is four times the size it was on March 1, and most of the workforce is remote. It has launched artificial intelligence programs to sort applications and interactive location tools to help users find lenders. Many employees are even using tablets.

Cavallo’s message to others is that the work must continue. Innovation can’t stop because of a pandemic.

“We can’t wait for this to be over,” Cavallo said.

Don’t miss out on other virtual learning opportunities. Pre-register for GovLoop’s remaining 2020 virtual summits today.

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