FEDTECH: What proportion of your agency usually teleworks?
GFRERER: There are about 400,000 employees in the department. Pre-COVID, we had about 60,000 remote users on any given day. About 40,000 VPN-type service with government-furnished equipment, and with 16,000 using the Citrix Access Gateway. The vast preponderance of those remote workers were in our Veterans Benefits Administration. The other two main business lines — Veterans Health Administration is largely on-premises healthcare delivery, although we did have some telehealth capacity that was ramping up and certainly ramped up substantially. And then, our National Cemetery Administration is a physical, on-premises activity as well. Today, we’re up at about 135,000 working remotely, anywhere from two to three times what we were previously doing. The largest expansion of that was for our clinicians that were delivering telehealth services.
FEDTECH: What concerns did you have about making the transition from either a technology or people standpoint?
GFRERER: My initial concern was around remote access, the ability to scale up to 100 percent of the workforce if needed. Secondarily, on the human factor side, my prime concern was our nearly 8,000 OIT employees. They’ve done phenomenally. From March 13 until early May, we were working seven days a week. And we still have elements of our infrastructure team that work seven days a week to maintain the enterprise. It does take a toll. From an applications perspective, we had the largest single-day deployment of Microsoft Teams in our environment.
In VA, OIT was the early adopter of Microsoft Teams, and we’ve used it aggressively. It has been put to the test. It has been found to be a very valued collaboration tool in our environment. And there are others — certainly our Cisco Webex video services. There’s a number of tools out there that have really allowed us to be as efficient as possible in a distributed and remote environment, which we all know is challenging. The information tech has really been the saving grace for this sort of contingency. It’s once in a century. We could never have envisioned the extent to which, time and scale, we would all have to be operating remotely.
FEDTECH: What are some tools that you’d already invested in, or that you procured on the fly, that helped you scale up and navigate this transition?
GFRERER: We have a VA enterprise cloud that is split fairly evenly between Microsoft Azure and AWS. We’ve been investing in it for over two years. I think VA is probably the earliest and furthest in terms of cloud migration in the federal space. If we as an Office of Information and Technology had not developed the governance, the process and the actual work of moving to the cloud and getting that down to somewhat of an art, maybe a science, we would have been much less better positioned to respond to this pandemic. There were about 50-plus COVID-critical systems early on that, in terms of supporting Veterans Health, we declared COVID-19 critical systems. Now we have 121 COVID-19 critical systems. Each of those were looked at very deliberately for any sort of acceleration in terms of migration to the cloud, and getting those performance and reliability enhancements that inherently we can realize when we do a cloud-based service and move off-prem.
The other big thing, too, is our effort around our group that does performance monitoring. We were already moving to an environment where every application would have to have end-to-end monitoring, and we’ve accelerated that. The ability, not only with telehealth, but with other things, to see inside the applications, to anticipate where systems needed to be load-balanced or remediated ahead of time, and preventing incident management calls and outages, that has been another success story in the pandemic.