The bar for dealing with COVID-related challenges was higher for some federal agencies than others. Earlier this year, Veterans Affairs Department (VA) was made responsible for developing and executing large-scale programs to protect its workforce, slow the spread of the virus, and continue to provide health care to 9 million veterans at 170 VA medical centers and more than 1,000 outpatient sites. To learn more about the VA’s response, we spoke with David Catanoso, Director of the Enterprise Cloud Solutions Office (ECSO) at VA, and Lia Burrus, Senior Analyst at ESCO.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
GovLoop: Tell us about the increase in telework among federal workers during the pandemic.
Catanoso: The VA has been on an IT modernization track for several years, particularly as it relates to the way we manage data and migrate it to the cloud. We’ve improved our security posture and digital business transformation, and we’re starting to move away from legacy systems. In March, we were told to do it faster and to expand telework and telehealth.
What has gone particularly well these last four months?
Catanoso: The big focus for us here at the Enterprise Cloud and VA has been expanding telework and telehealth. We went from nearly 60,000 people teleworking on any given day to doubling the number of users. We now have a capacity of more than 500,000 users. We also looked at bandwidth, expanding the number and capacity of Trusted Internet Connections (TIC) gateways, and the systems we use for telework. We also started expanding efforts in other technologies that help people work from home.
To support more telemedicine, we expanded our video conferencing capability, expanding into the cloud with Care2 Cloud. The Care2 Cloud telehealth expansion is a standalone environment that leverages VAEC-AWS Hosted Commercial Cloud instances to reduce latency and increase redundancy. It provides us with the flexibility to scale up or down as demand changes by adding capacity for 5000-plus peak concurrent conferences. With Care2 Cloud, VA medical providers and patients can experience HD quality calls, which can make a significant difference for cases requiring viewing of images and similar situations.
What has been most challenging?
Catanoso: Having to adapt our processes to work at a different pace — and the supply chain. Getting the physical infrastructure in place was a challenge, but we managed to do it in record time.
How have you changed processes?
Catanoso: In a normal world, the process for improving network changes or firewall rules or acquisition processes would be to put an acquisition out for bid, approve the acquisition and award it. If we had followed that track, we’d still be trying to get the first thing done.
What surprises have you encountered?
Catanoso: We came together as a team. A lot of cross-functional organizations that hadn’t been working in a crisis mode were able to get things done.
Teleworking during a pandemic can be isolating. How’s the workforce? What are you doing to help?
Burrus: They’re doing pretty well, actually. Our team, the Enterprise Cloud Solutions Office, has a weekly virtual water cooler meeting. You’re not allowed to talk about work. People let their hair down.
Catanoso: I think everybody kind of adapted. I think we’re going to see a lot more of this.
Catanoso: I think telework and telemedicine is here to stay.
How much of a challenge was it to get hardware into the hands of teleworkers?
Catanoso: There was a surge in mobile devices, phones and laptops, and we set records in terms of how fast we were able to procure and distribute them to the workforce. We worked closely with Amazon and Azure to make sure that if we wanted to scale to a certain size, EC2 or Azure VM in a certain region or availability zone, those VM would be there when we needed them.
What can you say about cybersecurity during this challenging time?
Catanoso: We have a very strong cybersecurity arm here at the VA, and we work very closely with them as part of our cloud initiative. We expanded telework using our current perimeter with our Citrix capability and began leveraging the new DHS TIC 3.0 construct, which we’ve used for our Care2 expansion in the cloud, as well as with the Azure Virtual, Windows Virtual Desktop and our App Stream CPRS, Cloud CPRS.
Has the experience of the past few months changed the mindset of telework skeptics?
Catanoso: I think there’s a positive perception among managers who may have been skeptical of telework. They’ve had to get comfortable with it really quick.
How do you balance the advantages of office-based and telework environments?
Burrus: As far as our team’s concerned, there is a strong desire to have face-to-face interactions, all hands meetings or multiday events even. We’re doing it virtually right now, and it’s working well. I think it’s going to be a mix.
Catanoso: The technology is going to become more capable in this realm, especially in the new VDI solutions. They will enable you to work wherever you are. There’s going to be some missions that will require you to physically be in a certain location, and we’ll adapt the workforce to the mission.
Even though COVID is far from over, what do you think you’ll take away from it?
Catanoso: This COVID exercise is a great learning experience for the VA, and not only for how we accomplish things from an IT standpoint, with agile and cloud and DevSecOps, but also for how we work. Now we can learn to apply those tools to get the job done. Yes, it’s about accomplishing the mission.
What might change about workplace culture after this crisis is over?
Catanoso: Having done amazing things in the last four months, we’re more open to alternative work methods and modes of work. The pandemic accelerated people’s experience with technology, something that maybe they’d been avoiding before.