It’s hard to think strategically about the future when you’re consumed with the demands of today. But that’s the delicate balance that Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) Suzette Kent and other tech leaders in government are navigating.
Over the past two months, CIOs and their teams have worked tirelessly, sometimes in 24-hour shifts, to keep employees connected, secure and empowered to do their jobs beyond office walls.
But now that agencies have proven — to varying degrees — that they can sustain operations and continue moving forward, how does this new way of doing business shape the way agencies adopt and roll out technology in the future? Well, in many ways the collective experiences of federal IT departments are serving as case studies or proof points, as Kent calls them, that will shape how agencies use technology to support the workforce and serve the public going forward.
“That gives us some proof points for what the future looks like,” Kent said during a virtual session Thursday hosted by Dcode. Among the questions agencies are considering: Do we have clarity around things that are most critical to the mission of agencies and serving citizens? Kent is also urging agencies to think differently about what their work environment looks like and what a distributed workforce looks like.
Whether it’s agencies’ ability to accelerate contracts, scale commercial tech solutions in days, support largely remote workforces, tap into best practices of the Federal Data Strategy, or use e-signatures, Kent highlighted numerous examples of what’s possible when agencies move from a “what-if” mindset to an “I did” way of thinking.
When that happens, then people start to think differently about a paradigm, Kent said.
“Many individuals who might have resisted not only accepted it but now with duration they are comfortable,” she said, pointing to examples where employees are now embracing the use of collaboration tools and applications for online document sharing and reviewing.
Kent noted that some agencies are better positioned than others for this nexus of change. She highlighted a few capabilities that have proven especially helpful for agencies during this time and into the future: some degree of interoperability for certain functions, video conferencing, document sharing and a data-sharing repository.
She added that “scalable, cloud-based, easily configured commercial solutions in so many cases helped us move quickly.”
Not only have agencies shared employees and expertise to respond to the pandemic, but they also accepted reciprocal ATOs. An ATO, or authority to operate, is a formal declaration that authorizes an IT system or product to operate on government networks. Normally, the events leading up to an ATO can take a year or more, and it isn’t a given that one agency will accept an ATO from another.
“That will hopefully continue,” Kent said about ATO sharing.
Across the technology community, there was a realization that many agency continuity of operations plans did not specifically define a response to a pandemic, Kent said. “We are learning things that will help make those assumptions and actions much more clear,” she said.