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Were State and Local Government IT Teams Ready for COVID-19?

Michael O'Dwyer| June 12 2020

| IT insights, Government

As lockdown measures and stay-at-home orders were launched to curb virus spread, IT found themselves with a slew of new responsibilities.

As far back as 2011, disaster scenarios tested by the CDC included a zombie apocalypse. And in late 2019, a report by The John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that the United States was by a large margin better prepared than any other country to handle an epidemic… As it turned out, this was not the case with.

Public bodies, for the most part, are slow to change and, unlike their private counterparts, were ill-prepared to handle the demands placed on them by the pandemic COVID-19. This is even true at a federal level as indicated by Federal Chief Information Office Suzette Kent on NextGov, when she commented that "Many individuals who I would say might have resisted some of the technology tools, not only have accepted them now—now, because of the duration [of the epidemic], they're comfortable with them."

Private organizations have either embraced telework in the last decade or habitually use remote communication tools for teleconferencing, VoIP, collaboration, and information-sharing. There simply wasn't a need to do so before as local and state governments always performed their roles from their respective Town Halls and offices. Not that remote working was the only IT requirement – IT teams had much more to consider and faced a wide variety of issues.

 

Far From The Political Stage

The IT teams in state and local government were at a disadvantage from the beginning due to a restrictive traditional office-based infrastructure with little in the way of remote capabilities, apart from cloud solutions that varied according to function and location. However, they reacted quickly as technology requirements drastically altered. Their new tasks included but were not limited to:

A Remote Workforce

Given stay-at-home orders and closed office buildings etc. government must keep functioning. This meant that IT had to put a telework solution in place, where employees could still carry out their roles as if still in their offices.

Front-Line Support

In the areas of health and for front-line employees in law enforcement and others tasked with enforcing public safety, prompt communication was essential, requiring a stable and scalable broadband solution.

Customer/Citizen Services

In any disaster scenario, ensuring access to relevant information and prompt response to queries from those affected or at risk is essential. This required the rerouting of office numbers, website updates (or creation in some cases), and a means of automated form processing to maximize information capture and dissemination to involved parties.

Information Sharing

Participation in a city, state, and national data-gathering exercise to analyze virus spread on an ongoing basis.

Cybersecurity

Unfortunately, even in this situation, hackers and scammers see nothing but opportunity, attacking perceived weaknesses in the altered government infrastructure and targeting users and citizens in a variety of virus-related phishing scams.

Of course, IT cannot handle everything without help from others, and luckily, in these situations, support is available.

Some of the Barriers

In an ideal world, it's easy to roll out IT upgrades, but the harsh reality is a little different. IT was hampered in several ways, including but not limited to:

Increased Attacks

As mentioned previously, hackers and scammers didn't give anyone a free pass and took advantage of the situation with scams and hacking attempts. Anyone who pretends to have PPE (personal protective equipment) to defraud victims during an epidemic deserves harsh punishment, which I can't specify here… This means IT must secure home workers to a standard equal to their onsite network.

Scalability

Considered as part of a business continuity plan in the private sector, government IT teams must ensure that all their services and interactions with the public are scalable and capable of handling increased traffic demand. This is sure to occur when people are scared.

Service Quality

It's all very well to make a sweeping declaration, "Let's all work from home!" but again, the reality is a little different. Residential broadband may be much slower, have unrealistic data caps, or may even be inaccessible except over mobile or even satellite.

Clearly, no IT team could solve everything in-house.

A Collaborative Effort Was Required

No matter how well-intentioned, no city or state can do it alone, and this is where the private sector comes in. Communication between local, state, and federal agencies and organizations is essential in an epidemic. We've all seen that different states have different rules during this crisis. How would it be if every city and county also had a different message? How about every department in those cities? A suitable and unified messaging system is key to avoid conflicting messages to the public with existing solutions, including Everbridge and Onsolve.

Another noteworthy private-sector solution is the Verizon Response Team, deploying broadband connectivity solutions in more than 30 states throughout the crisis, whether it's for mobile hospitals, testing drive-thrus, call processing, or simply keeping stranded at-risk residents in touch with loved ones.

Conclusion

Clearly, the private sector has a significant part to play in any crisis, and government IT teams utilized them as needed. As IT teams only act under instruction and within defined budgets, they performed a monumental task in short order, transitioning the entire infrastructure to a more flexible footing that will pay dividends in the future. Perhaps working from home will become the norm for many government employees, or will 2020 be the year government employees worked from home for the only time in their careers? Only time will tell.

Topics: IT insights, Government

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THIS POST WAS WRITTEN BY Michael O'Dwyer

An Irishman based in Hong Kong, Michael O’Dwyer is a business & technology journalist, independent consultant and writer who specializes in writing for enterprise, small business and IT audiences. With 20+ years of experience in everything from IT and electronic component-level failure analysis to process improvement and supply chains (and an in-depth knowledge of Klingon,) Michael is a sought-after writer whose quality sources, deep research and quirky sense of humor ensures he’s welcome in high-profile publications such as The Street and Fortune 100 IT portals.

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