‘In Every Crisis, There’s Opportunity,’ Says FDIC CIO

It’s difficult to change how people work, but inevitably, the pandemic has forced government employees to change their habits.

The opportunities for technology to be adopted and embraced like never before is the silver lining that Sylvia Burns, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), sees at both her agency and the federal government at large during this crisis.

“I have seen in my experience that in every crisis, there’s opportunity,” Burns said. “In some ways, it was the biggest help we could have gotten in terms of organizational change management and getting people to embrace technology.”

GovLoop interviewed Burns to find out what changes the federal agency underwent and what opportunities the crisis unveiled.

Digital Signatures

One of the first ways work needed to change was document signing. The agency already had tools for e-signing, but most employees did not use them because they were accustomed to wet signatures, or signing on paper. Federal policies aside, people had neither reason nor desire to change the way they were working.

I know at the federal government level, [the Office of Management and Budget] is trying to strongly push digital signatures. They’ve had policies about [these] things in the past. When you throw it out there in a non-crisis environment, it’s hard for people to embrace that.

When FDIC’s workforce shifted to telework in March, e-signature tools were no longer an option, however. They were the only way to sign papers. As a result, the scale at which these tools were being used increased dramatically, and various offices within the agency came to the IT division for help.

We ended up going and working with our legal division to help us understand the legal aspect of signing documents. And they dispelled some myths…. Some people thought they had to sign documents that they didn’t have to sign. And it was because over the years, somebody at some point said, ”Let’s sign this document when we transmit it.” Well, we found there were no legal or policy requirements that some of these documents needed to be signed. If you transmit the document through an official FDIC system like email, they’re considered official.

By embracing e-signature technology, the agency found and eliminated an extraneous procedure in the process and improved operations for the future.

IT and Business Are Closer Than Ever

During the crisis, the relationship between IT and business has grown closer, Burns said. “The business needs IT to keep productive, and vice versa. We need the business,” she said.

For example, the agency is responsible for ensuring that depositors of FDIC-insured banks do not lose their deposits if that bank fails. The process for responding to a bank failure is called Resolutions and Receiverships.

The traditional process for that involves sending dozens of people onsite to that bank to actually do the closing. In the world we’re in right now, with the pandemic, we want to minimize the amount of people that we send anywhere. So what does that mean again? It means you have to look at technology.

Burns is actively researching remote and automated tools for essential business operations that will minimize staff’s physical exposure as much as possible.

There’s little likelihood that after turning to technology, they will return to manual methods.

I think this whole situation is creating a new normal. I’ve talked to a number of people over the last few days about not going back to the manual, old way that we used to do things because all of a sudden, we’ve proved through this crisis that we could do things differently. We could minimize the number of people needed to go to a bank closing. Maybe 50 people could be on the back end using all the tools and technologies to do the processing work, and maybe you only send 10 people, instead of 60 or 70.

Basically, this situation has been almost like a live proof of concept, and in many cases, things have been proven. I would say that some of my colleagues who lead other mission areas of the FDIC are saying, “Well, you know what, why would we go back?”

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent report, “CIO Perspectives: A New Vision for the Government Workplace.” Download the full report here.

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