Jan 07 2021

Which Technology Shifts and Lessons Will Outlast the Pandemic?

Many agencies adopted new technologies and approaches on the fly in the early months of the pandemic. Which ones will have long-lasting impacts?

Federal agencies were forced by the coronavirus pandemic to adapt in numerous ways last year, including how they provisioned services for and supported remote workers, how they moved data between unclassified and classified environments and more.

As 2021 dawns and a new administration prepares to take office, agency IT leaders are assessing which new technologies and policies they will want to retain in the long term and which ones to jettison. The pandemic has shown that it is imperative for government agencies to be able to deliver digital citizen services on a dime, as the Department of Veterans Affairs had to do when it rapidly ramped up telehealth offerings last spring.

Last month, the Partnership for Public Service and Microsoft released a white paper on the digital transformations and initiatives government agencies have undertaken during the pandemic. The report also distilled several key lessons agencies can learn from such shifts.

The white paper, “Bit by Bit: How Governments Used Technology to Move the Mission Forward During COVID-19,” details a few case studies of how agencies embraced digital services and notes that agencies that “adapted successfully pointed to several building blocks that contributed to their success.”

Those included “having had a technology foundation in place; access to skilled technologists; paying close attention to cybersecurity concerns; an ability to evaluate how technology can enable mission delivery; understanding the need to design technology with the user in mind; and being cognizant of the need for the public to have access to technology and the internet.”

The Need for Modern Digital Government

As the white paper notes, the pandemic highlighted how central technology is to our modern lives and to the functioning of government. “Technologies ranging from digital communication to artificial intelligence became a larger element in how public servants tackled the challenges and disruptions brought on by COVID-19,” the white paper notes. “But the pandemic also highlighted the decades of neglect that left many governments relying on antiquated hardware and software, including the nation’s public health systems that struggled to collect and report accurate data on the pandemic.”

Notably, the IRS, which became responsible for distributing billions of dollars in economic stimulus payments, “has computer systems created as far back as 1968, the same year the use of the computer mouse was first successfully demonstrated in public.”

The need to modernize technology in the federal government had been well known for many years, but the pandemic put that imperative into sharp relief.

EXPLORE: These are the 5 key trends to watch for in federal IT in 2021.

How Agencies Adopted New Technologies to Meet Mission Needs

The report details several agencies that made technological shifts in response to changing mission needs during the first part of the pandemic.

For example, the VA faced a flood of inquiries from veterans about the coronavirus and its impact on VA services. The agency deployed a chatbot on its website by late April to help answer FAQs, and new answers are regularly added.

Within the first few months, the white paper notes, the chatbot saw more than 53,000 unique user sessions. “During peak usage, the chatbot responded to twice as many coronavirus-related queries as did the VA tier 1 contact center over the same period of time,” the white paper notes. More than two-thirds of veterans were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their experience with the chatbot, Kaeli Yuen, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the VA, says in the document.

The Energy Department “created the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory to connect national laboratories and allow researchers remote access to the technical and scientific capabilities of the labs to respond to COVID-19,” the white paper notes, citing Office of Science Director Chris Fall.

The Energy Department built on earlier technology initiatives and is “considering the expansion of its virtual capabilities at the national laboratories,” the white paper notes.

“A great deal of what we do already had virtual elements built in,” Fall says in the document. It notes that the Energy Department wants to expand its practice of running experiments at overseas facilities remotely from labs in the United States. The department is considering how to support virtual scientific collaboration in “areas requiring more manual work and in-person interaction between teams, such as biotechnology and material science.”

Chris Fall
A great deal of what we do already had virtual elements built in.”

Chris Fall Director, Office of Science, Energy Department

The Small Business Administration was another agency that had to adapt, and put in place more digital-first and digital-only workflows, SBA CTO Sanjay Gupta said during a Dec. 8 panel session on the white paper, according to FCW. “We can do the work, we have done the work and we can continue to do digital only workflows,” he said.

SBA had to deal with a deluge of emails after Congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program to deliver loans to small businesses. To help the agency sift through the messages, SBA created a language sentiment analytical tool, FedScoop reports. The tool was aimed at helping SBA determine which agency measures were working well and where improvements were needed.

“It allowed us to inform new frequently asked questions. It also allowed us to inform policy updates because these economic recovery programs were in the evolutionary stages,” Gupta said, according to FedScoop. “As we learned more from the customer sentiment, it allowed us to figure out what changes were necessary to make to our environment.”

Among its recommendations, the white paper notes that that “Users should come first when an agency designs and manages a process or service using technology.”

The white paper also notes that agencies can invest in “building an expert technology staff to drive technology implementation and navigate a changing technology landscape,” citing Lon Gowen, chief technologist and special adviser to the CIO at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“You need a group of people working with the chief technology officer to cover different sectors of technology and report back so the CTO can make decisions on which ones to start investing in,” Gowen says in the document.

“Overall, government agencies should reevaluate their technology strategies and investments, and focus on plans and steps that will enable them to support remote operations and digital service delivery to a larger extent,” the white paper notes.

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