In regards to remote working, the general consensus seems to be, "you can't put the genie back in the bottle."
A good portion of the government workforce has been working from home for the past year, and the world has continued turning. In fact, some agencies report productivity is up since teleworking became the norm. While people will return to the office, it will look different with many alternating office days with days they work from home. The past year has shown us that working arrangements do not necessarily need to be confined to an office. And, when we also remove the stress of students learning from home, caring for homebound elderly parents, and a pandemic in general, employees may realize a new level of balance and job satisfaction.
To support the continued success of remote work, agencies need to shore up the IT that was put in place to simply keep the trains running on time. Some technology was implemented quickly to meet the immediate need, and now is the time to take a hard look at all of those solutions to see if they will scale to meet the long-term reality of a dispersed workforce.
Though the word may be overused, state and local governments are indeed facing unprecedented challenges. Forced to move operations online in response to their own stay-at-home orders, state and local agencies have spent the last year retooling how they serve citizens. They have been paying for necessary technology upgrades and other new equipment while revenues from taxes have dropped considerably. Even with these financial challenges, state CIOs are committed to continuing with their innovation and modernization efforts.
A study from the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) showed that priorities for state and local CIOs stayed consistent over the last year, with cybersecurity and enhancing digital citizen service being the top two. Of course, these two areas saw critical investments in 2020 just to keep the business of government running. In 2021, the solutions put in place will be revisited, evaluated for efficiency, and operationalized to support agencies moving forward.
At the beginning of 2020, the idea that the vast majority of the federal workforce would be working from home seemed like a remote (pun intended) reality. However, due to shelter-in-place orders across the U.S. this spring, much of the public sector work was being done from kitchen tables, guest bedrooms, and home offices. This fast pivot to remote work left agencies scrambling to get devices to employees now separated from their desks, develop reliable and secure connections to enterprise systems and applications, and re-engineer decades-old processes to accommodate fully virtual teams. Some examples include:
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created a workaround to give employees access to systems when they could not use their PIV card. An alternative credential process was created in under a month, enabling DHS to issue credentials that included logical access tokens to give employees and contractors access to DHS networks only. Unlike a PIV card, this credentialing system doesn't have the employee or contractor's photo ID or allow physical access to a DHS building.
The U.S. Federal government is the single largest employer in the country (even just counting civilian employees, not military). With the size and scope of work involved in running our government programs, this community of over two million people is incredibly diverse, but there are some commonalities in terms of workforce challenges and concerns.
Automation - There is a real fear as digital initiatives become routine and administrative tasks are automated, machines will take over the work of humans. However, workforce and technology leaders have said over and over this is simply not the reality. Yes, certain tasks that people used to do will be handled by machines, but that shift frees up those same people to do other, more valuable work. The government is committed to "reskilling" the workforce to be able to rise to these new, more innately human tasks and, in turn, expect to see increased job satisfaction as people move from rote, mundane tasks, to activity that has a closer connection to the mission of the organization they work for.
Relocation - The military has grown accustomed to the BRAC process as bases are closed or their use changes to better support the realities of global defense. However, relocation is now a reality for the civilian workforce. With telework and remote workforces now better enabled, it is not as critical that all workers are located in Washington, DC. The government, including the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior, has been looking for ways to consolidate operations in areas that are more central to the constituents they serve and are in areas of the country with lower real estate prices and cost of living.
Stability - Once thought to be the most stable of jobs, recent spending impasses and resulting government shutdowns have left one in four government workers worried about the impact a shutdown would have on their life.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues to dominate tech headlines. Now, rather than learning what the technology could mean for government, we're reading about where it's being implemented, and the results being achieved. A recent report found that AI is no longer considered optional, but rather a critical component to managing and using large amounts of data. IT leaders in government are looking to AI to automate routine, data-oriented tasks, ease access to diverse sets of data, prioritize tasks based on the benefit to the organization, and generally keep track of ever-growing streams of data.
The Intelligence Community (IC) has long been a top consumer and analyzer of data in government. Not surprisingly, they have embraced AI technology to supplement the work of analysts by reducing the amount of manual data sorting with machine-assisted, high-level cognitive analysis. AI is being used to help triage so the highly-trained analysts can spend their time making sense of the data collected by looking at the most valuable and seemingly connected pieces.
Health and Human Services (HHS) implemented an AI solution when they needed to quickly procure Hazmat suits to meet the response to an Ebola outbreak. Procurement officials were able to use AI to make like-to-like comparisons among products. After the initial tactical analysis, the acquisition teams were able to use the data gathered on department wide pricing and the terms and conditions to better define parameters for ten categories of purchases.
Despite the successful implementations in many agencies, AI is still in the pilot and introductory phase. The Air Force is making it easier to begin experimenting with AI. Because the DoD has strict rules about what can be put on their networks, it is difficult to introduce new technologies into the production environment. The Air Force has created a workaround with the Air Force Cognitive Engine (ACE) software platform, a software ecosystem that can connect core infrastructures that are required for successful AI development (people, algorithms, data, and computational resources).
HHS is looking to use AI to analyze dated regulations as part of their AI for deregulation project. The pilot has found that 85 percent of HHS regulations from before 1990 have not been edited and are most likely obsolete. Using AI to flag regulations with the term "telegram," for example, will begin the prioritization of data that needs to be looked at by humans.