What the Pandemic Has Revealed About the State of Federal IT
Published: May 06, 2020
No federal agency was completely prepared for a nationwide health emergency like the novel coronavirus. The combination of mass telework, increased citizen demand for information and services, and the need to quickly distribute relief funds, put federal IT capabilities to the test.
- For some agencies, on-going modernization efforts gave them a platform to quickly adapt to telework and mission continuity in the face of the pandemic.
- In other cases, lack of modern IT and cumbersome legacy systems hindered agencies’ abilities to deliver services or enable a remote workforce on the fly.
- Now more than ever, agencies need to continue IT modernization efforts in order to be able to better serve constituents and to position themselves to better adapt quickly in the face of other crises or emergencies.
In a matter of weeks, agencies had to adjust to support a remote workforce, distribute relief funds to individuals and businesses, supply citizens with information on COVID-19, ramp up operations to approve tests and drugs, increase biomedical research efforts, and treat patients with the disease.
How is the federal IT infrastructure holding up in the face of the COVID-19 crisis? For some agencies, on-going IT modernization efforts are paying off for telework and continuity of operations. For other agencies, their IT infrastructures are strained.
GSA already ranked highest among federal telework and was well-positioned to move more of its workforce to home-based operations during the pandemic. According to OPM in 2018, 81% of GSA’s workforce teleworked at least part of the time. Prior to the pandemic, GSA made investments in IT infrastructure that allowed for a remote workforce and supported telework efforts. The agency has also seen side benefits from telework in that it is able to reduce real estate needs and to attract IT talent that would otherwise not consider working for the federal government.
SBA was able to use GSA Schedule 70 and NASA’s SEWP contracts to rapidly acquire desktop and laptop computers, and other peripheral devices such as mice and monitors to enable their workforce to work from home. SBA’s CIO, Maria Roat, said in an ACT IAC teleconference in late April that the agency leveraged software defined networking and collaborative technologies to set up its telework and loan platforms. SBA also increased its bandwidth on its Ethernet backbone to handle increased internet traffic.
In just a matter of weeks, the Pentagon implemented a massive expansion of IT capabilities to support telework. DOD quickly constructed a Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) service which is an exclusive DOD implementation of Microsoft Teams, providing videoconferencing, chat, file sharing and other collaboration tools. As of mid-April, DOD and the military services have established 900,000 CVR accounts.
Although SBA was able to quickly acquire hardware for its newly remote workforce, other agencies looking for similar equipment felt a strain from the federal IT supply chain, such as HHS and VA.
The pandemic also highlighted Congress’ lack of IT prowess. The legislative branch hasn’t yet figured out how to implement technology to allow lawmakers to safely vote remotely. In fact, the need is so great, at the end of April Congress launched the Congressional Digital Service Fellowship to act much like other federal tech teams, such as the USDS and 18F, to improve IT infrastructure and modernize Congressional business practices.
IRS has long struggled with its Masterfile system that was originally built in 1962 and hard-coded in COBOL. The system required multiple coding changes to administer stimulus checks. IRS also has more than 16 other databases containing taxpayer information, none of which communicates easily with the other. Due to the required speed to distribute stimulus funds and the difficulty of updating IRS systems, there were a few hiccups in the process. For example, IRS sent 300,000 erroneous stimulus payments to bank accounts that were only used temporarily during the tax filing season. The bank sent the money back to the IRS, but now paper checks must be cut for these individuals. Additionally, some stimulus payments were sent using information from 2018 tax returns, which may be outdated. People have died or changed banks in some cases.
Although SBA worked feverishly with technology partners to launch a user-friendly front-end for loan processing on its website, lenders experienced problems and outages during the first and second rounds of funding of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
Even before the height of the pandemic, in mid-February, the Coast Guard’s leader Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz stated that “years of investment tradeoffs have brought our information technology to the brink of catastrophic failure.” In March, the Coast Guard was forced to make some immediate IT investments to allow thousands of employees to work from home and to keep service members on the front lines connected. However, the Coast Guard is unable to make long-need IT infrastructure and system modernization investments due to lack of funding.
In a survey of federal employees conducted by Federal News Network in April, some respondents reported that their agencies had problems scaling VPN in the beginning, but that many problems had subsided. Some also indicated that federal legacy systems were never designed with this type of work scenario in mind and will likely not support remote access over the long-term. The survey also found that 34% of respondents said connections to agency’s networks were slow, and 10% said their organization had to find them laptops and other equipment for remote work. Thirty-five percent of respondents said their agency’s technology seemed better than they initially thought, but 8% said their organization’s IT was worse than expected. One respondent stated that their agency’s servers cannot handle the load and that they had not been able to access work emails from home 99% of the time during the past three days.
CDC is in the midst of a data modernization effort that it says would have led to faster detection and tracking of coronavirus as it spread across the country. In early March, CDC urged members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies to fund its Public Health Data Modernization Initiative which is designed to invest in new and upgraded technologies that detect, track and analyze trends around disease outbreaks. Other needed enhancements include the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System for improved data collection, sharing and analysis across the public-health sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that federal agencies need continuity of operations from an IT perspective, the information technology backbone to allow them to carry out their missions in the face of disasters, emergencies and other crises. This includes the need for mobility. Federal employees and military service members need to be able to access electronic resources anytime, anywhere, any place. Agencies also need speed. They need to be able to quickly ramp up bandwidth and connectivity, VPN capacity, and their IT supply chain. Additionally, agencies need robust cybersecurity to allow employee access from anywhere, as well as citizen and customer access to digital services and benefits. This includes identity authentication to thwart bad actors and stem waste, fraud and abuse. Older technology and legacy systems do not adequately serve these needs.
The Way Forward
The current crisis has not unveiled anything that we didn’t already know. Legacy systems are a hindrance to efficient federal mission fulfillment and in many cases garner cybersecurity risks. Agencies need to continue IT modernization efforts to bolster their IT infrastructure, update and automated business processes, strengthen cybersecurity, and migrate to cloud environments for scalability and elasticity. All of these efforts require funding.
House lawmakers previously proposed $3 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund in a COVID-19 bill stimulus bill, but the legislation stalled. The CARES Act does include funding for telehealth, telework, cybersecurity and modernization, however exact dollar amounts for IT are not specified and are included as part of agency line items for other expenses such as cleaning, PPE, and other supplies. Only the VA has a specified line item of over $2 billion to spend on IT in response to COVID-19 to support veterans, caregivers, and their families. To date federal IT spending related to COVID-19 totals $384M. Most of the spending is from VA, $141M. Overall spending to date includes products for telework expansion, such as security, software licenses, hardware, IT maintenance and telehealth capabilities.
As we reach a new normal, expect a brighter lens to shine on the state of federal IT and potentially gain new support for updating or replacing aged infrastructure and legacy systems. Federal IT contractors are well-positioned to assist agencies in their efforts to shift to current commercial IT platforms and environments.