Federal IT Modernization Themes Coming Out of COVID-19

Published: April 29, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisCloud ComputingCoronavirus (COVID-19) PandemicCybersecurityInformation TechnologyTelework

Several themes emerge as federal agencies work to rapidly adapt their information technology to operate under the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Takeaways

  • Federal agencies have needed to modernize several aspects of their IT infrastructure and capabilities to retain effective operational levels during the COVID-19 response, including telework capabilities and the underlying infrastructure.
  • Telework expansion is driving increased use of cloud computing capabilities to supply the necessary tools and platforms to keep people working.
  • Cybersecurity to support remote operations as well as protect agencies, businesses and the public from coronavirus-related scams and other cyber-attacks is an ongoing effort.
  • Future funding for widespread IT modernization may receive favorable reception in Congress once the current crisis subsides. However, billions of dollars in COVID-19 response IT spending now may drive fiscal constraints down the road.

COVID-19 Highlights the Need for Federal IT Modernization

Federal departments and agencies have needed to make considerable efforts to stay fully functioning and provide the necessary citizen services during the current coronavirus response and aid efforts. This includes rapidly modernizing certain areas of their IT capabilities – with mixed results. The mixed bag of challenges and successes shines light on the fact that many of the systems agencies are using are long outdated – built on legacy technologies and software, such as COBAL – or that agencies were not leveraging available tech capabilities to their greatest potential.

Here are a few complementary themes and examples around what federal agencies large and small have done in the area of IT modernization as they have dealt with the impacts of COVID-19.

Infrastructure – The demand for rapid response and timely information has stretched many agencies’ basic operating infrastructure beyond its limits, requiring enhancements and support from across the federal IT landscape, including the White House. For example, the U.S. Digital Service helped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with overhauling some of its website architecture to aid it in publishing important coronavirus information and data. The USDS has also been working with the Small Business Administration (SBA) as it delivers loans to companies affected by the related economic downturn.

Telework – Possibly nowhere else may the modernization efforts be more visible than the rapid scaling agencies have done to increase their telework capacity and capabilities. In March, OPM released their most updated data on the level of federal telework, which is for 2018. Of the 42% of the federal workforce that has been deemed eligible to telework only half of them were actually teleworking at all. That works out to about 22% of the overall federal workforce. Clearly, COVID-19 has pushed those numbers up on all fronts and some agencies have invested in the infrastructure to make that happen. The Navy is expanding its networks to accommodate 500,000 remote users, up from 100,000 before the pandemic. The effort is funded in part by $300 million from coronavirus relief funding from Congress. The Air Force has implemented its large-scale End User Remote Access Management (EURAM) virtual private network connections, which has expanded remote access from 10,000 users beforehand to 400,000 concurrent connections now. The Army has also significantly increased its telework capabilities, with roughly 800,000 telework employees on DoD networks, and a 400 percent increase in network access for data and voice capacity.

Cloud Computing – Much of the increased telework capacity is due to expanded use of cloud architectures and capabilities, including underlying business processes that support cloud utilization. To support expanded capacity at the military departments the Defense Department created the Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) environment, a cloud-based suite of capabilities that includes collaboration tools, video-conferencing and document production and management. Several federal CIOs are stating unequivocally that their agency’s ability to ramp-up cloud-based capacity to meet the current demand is based on their cloud-related IT modernization efforts over the last few years.

Cybersecurity – The fluid environment that has driven remote operations at several levels continues to present cybersecurity challenges and responses. Demand for remote access through telework has strained some agencies’ Virtual Private Network (VPN) capabilities, requiring upgrades to accommodate the surge. Social distancing has driven telehealth uses, which present both security and privacy safeguards. The amount of COVID-19 related scams and other cyber-attacks have also raised efforts to mitigate these risks through user awareness efforts and gap-filling in cybersecurity infrastructure – including patches to operating software and collaboration applications. Further, federal law enforcement has acted to disrupt scores of scammer internet domains aimed exploiting COVID-19 for fraud.

Implications for Future IT Modernization Spending

The need for so many agencies to do so much to remain at optimal operations has placed the state of federal IT under more scrutiny than in recent memory. The question will remain whether widespread legacy IT modernization will increase in priority once the sense of crisis subsides . . . and what might that look like if it does.

Some in Congress appear willing to keep the modernization momentum moving forward, and even possibly accelerate it. In a recent online industry event, U.S Congressman Rep. Gerry Connolly – who chairs the Subcommittee on Government Operations in the House Oversight and Reform Committee, where most oversight of federal IT policy and operations resides – noted that the sudden technological challenges that have come with COVID-19 highlight the long-needed importance of bolstering IT infrastructure and resources. Connolly said that he intends to continue pushing for oversight of broader federal IT modernization progress through the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), the law that monitors and scores federal agencies on IT modernization progress based on a various criteria.

However, holding agencies accountable for modernization does not necessarily translate into funding for those efforts, at least not usually without requirements for savings elsewhere. The creation a few years ago of the IT Modernization Fund – where agencies can effectively borrow funds for modernization programs and then repay the funds from savings – is such an example.

Further, with trillions of dollars already spent on coronavirus response and assistance it remains to be seen whether such a free spending atmosphere will (or can) remain, especially when it comes to federal agencies. While the recognition of the need to further modernize federal systems is likely to linger, Congress and even OMB may seek to move agencies forward under a resource-constrained model that will demand efficiencies, economies and reduced spending over the long-term. Any “new normal” may resemble much of what we have seen before. Only time will tell.