Jul 16 2020

Agencies Move Meetings Online as In-Person Conferences Disappear

NIH, NIST and the Senate all turn to videoconferencing to bring dozens of participants together via the internet.

In April, Jeff Greene, director of the National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence, had been scheduled to hold an all-day, in-person quarterly meeting with 42 industry partners. When the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to conferences, he instead hosted the meeting via a 90-minute videoconference.

The NCCoE, part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, alternates between in-person and virtual meetings each quarter, so this was not out of the ordinary. To set up the meeting, Greene and his support staff used best practices honed through past experience and adapted to pandemic circumstances. 

To bolster security, they sent partners meeting invites with a unique meeting link. They muted participants automatically, so the meeting wouldn’t be disrupted by people typing on their keyboards. And to encourage discussion, they gave partners multiple ways to chime in: raise a hand, send a message on group chat or email, or unmute themselves and speak up. 

“It went smoothly. We gave updates on key projects and told them we’re moving forward with our projects despite the remote work,” Greene says.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Learn about the technology behind videoconferencing tools and how to keep them running.

This spring, as the federal government ordered its employees to work from home and avoid travel in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, federal agencies and institutions got creative and turned to virtual conferences to keep important major meetings on the books, continue their missions and get work done. 

For example, in March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services switched their final meeting on new national dietary guidelines from an in-person event to a public webcast — and presented the final draft report in June in an online meeting as well. Meanwhile, the deeply traditional Supreme Court used audioconferences to hear oral arguments — even livestreaming for the first time — and candidates running for election Nov. 3 held virtual town halls rather than glad-handing at rallies.

Many agencies have deployed cloud-based videoconferencing apps such as Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Zoom to communicate and collaborate. “If government institutions can’t do face-to-face meetings, at least they have the infrastructure and tools in place to allow meetings and critical communications to continue,” says Bob O’Donnell, president of TECHnalysis Research.

Senate Goes Online for Hearings Amid Crisis

Another government body used to doing all of its work in person, the U.S. Senate, saw its first remote hearing in April, led by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. Portman chairs the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which held a roundtable on how the Senate could effectively use technology to debate and vote remotely during a major crisis.

The two-hour videoconference contained all the hallmarks of an in-person hearing, including opening statements from senators and testimony from witnesses. 

The virtual hearing, conducted through Cisco Webex, went flawlessly and showed that it was possible for the Senate to work remotely. The meeting inspired other Senate committees to hold virtual hearings this spring via videoconference.

Jeff Greene, Director, National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence
It’s changing the mindset of having a conversation or having a meeting to ‘this is a data exchange, and you need to treat it like any other data exchange.’”

Jeff Greene Director, National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence

Portman and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have introduced a resolution to allow remote voting during national emergencies. Portman’s subcommittee produced a report explaining how the Senate could use off-the-shelf technology to secure remote voting, including the use of encryption, blockchain and multifactor authentication methods such as one-time passwords and biometric scanning.

The House of Representatives, which is also trying remote hearings, decided in May to temporarily allow members to vote by proxy for the first time. That resolution also permits remote voting during future emergencies once a secure system is developed.

Portman believes virtual meetings and remote voting should never be the norm, used only temporarily in emergencies when senators can’t meet, debate and vote in Washington. 

“The Senate must continue to govern and fulfill its constitutional duties during periods of extraordinary crisis, like the current pandemic, that make it difficult for senators to convene in the Capitol,” Portman tells FedTech. “I’m pleased to see that the success of this hearing has inspired other committees to convene remotely using many of the same technologies and techniques.”

READ MORE: Find out how to effectively set up technology ahead of virtual meetings. 

One Size Doesn’t Fit All for Conferencing 

In mid-March, when National Institutes of Health employees began teleworking as much they possibly could, the agency’s Center for Information Technology augmented its internal videocasting service as well as existing subscriptions to Cisco Webex, Skype and Microsoft Teams with two cloud-based videoconferencing services (Zoom and Cisco’s Vbrick) to meet the needs of its 40,000 staffers. 

“We learned that one technology is not the answer. Rather, we use a variety of tools, many hosted in the cloud,” says Stacie Alboum, CIT deputy director. “That’s the key to our success: feature sets that best meet their needs.”

Face-to-face meetings are part of NIH’s culture. But the agency — which is on the forefront of COVID-19 and other medical research — quickly pivoted during the coronavirus outbreak and began relying on videoconferences to hold advisory council meetings, seminars and workshops.

300,000

The number of virtual meetings the National Institutes of Health held from March to June 2020

Source: National Institutes of Health

CIT developed a guide on security and privacy best practices, plus a cheat sheet for users. It shows which conferencing tool is best for a meeting’s specific needs based on the number of users; the tool’s features, such as closed captioning; and whether the meeting is a one-way stream or an interactive session. The IT staff also scheduled training sessions on how to set up and use videoconferencing apps. 

Because the training sessions were so popular — “it was like trying to get your kids into a camp or to buy concert tickets,” Alboum says — CIT recorded one for people who couldn’t attend.

In the spring, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins wanted to hold a virtual town hall meeting, but the agency’s existing conferencing tools could not handle the entire workforce. Cisco came through with Vbrick’s Rev platform that successfully streamed the one-hour meeting and interactive Q&A session to 23,000 attendees.

Overall, Alboum says, “the tools have been stable and have supported record-breaking usage.”

In March, when it became clear that government, education and the private sector would rely on telework to continue operations, Greene at NCCoE thought about his past virtual meeting practices and realized he was lax on security, frequently using the same dial-in numbers. 

He spoke to colleagues, who told him that few people were thinking about videoconferencing security and encouraged him to write about best practices. So, he wrote two blog posts providing advice on how to ensure security and privacy for virtual meetings. 

“It’s changing the mindset of having a conversation or having a meeting to ‘this is a data exchange, and you need to treat it like any other data exchange,’” he says. 

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover how to make telework a success at your agency. 

Best Practices for Virtual Meetings

Greene follows his own advice when he sets up videoconferences. First, he decides how sensitive a meeting is (low, medium or high sensitivity) to determine which security measures he should apply. 

For a public meeting, he limits who can share their screens and automatically mutes people. For more sensitive meetings, he uses new dial-in numbers or one-time meeting codes. 

NIST standardizes on several videoconferencing apps. Through a dashboard, he checks who joins. And if the meeting is extremely sensitive, he uses a “greenroom,” or waiting room, and admits participants individually.

“It takes time, but it allows you to keep control of who’s on there,” he says.

During the early months of the pandemic, Greene attended phone and videoconferences daily with colleagues, other agencies and industry partners.

Overall, his team has remained productive, working with tech vendors, academic institutions and other agencies on projects such as 5G security, post-quantum cryptography and developing a zero-trust architecture

“We’ve adapted to working from home, and we’re moving along at a pace that’s comparable to before,” he says. “We’re finding more ways to get things done.”

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