Every agency has struggled with how to adapt to the maximum telework environment the federal government has been operating under since March, but most have had the good fortune not to have to worry about how to handle classified materials. Those that aren’t so lucky have had to perform a kind of juggling act to ensure their employees’ safety from the coronavirus while also guaranteeing that the work that needs to get done gets done.
At the Defense Department, only about 5% of the workforce teleworked before the coronavirus pandemic began, according to Peter Ranks, DoD’s deputy chief information officer for the Information Enterprise. That translates to between 90,000 and 100,000 people per day — still comparatively a rather large figure. And very few of those were doing classified work, limited primarily to pilot programs focusing on niche projects.
Now DoD has around 960,000 people on its Commercial Virtual Remote (CVR) collaboration environment.
“That happened remarkably quickly. And I think we leveraged the urgency of the moment to waive policies where we had to accelerate processes to take advantage of some existing contracts to do it,” Ranks said during a July 22 NextGov panel. “On the classified side, it was harder. Luckily, again, we already had the blueprints drawn up. But just scaling the production, producing the devices for classified, remote work, all the commercial solutions for classified work, that is high-touch in-person labor. And it was difficult to scale that in a safe way in order to meet the demand. We did eventually hit our stride. But whereas we moved into the unclassified space very broadly over the span of 60 days, I think it’s only recently that we feel like we have hit a lot of the demand for remote work at the secret level.”
That started with figuring out how many classified remote work programs already existed, since no central repository existed. Finding roughly a dozen programs in such a big department wasn’t easy.
“And so we actually worked with [the National Security Agency], who has to approve all those things to first of all just get our arms around those in a daily IT COVID telework Task Force, that the DoD CIO chaired, and get shared awareness of where all those things were,” Ranks said. “And once we knew where all of them were, what their state of maturity was, we could ensure that they had all the approvals they needed.”
On the production side, getting ramped up involved a lot of local actions. But one lesson the department learned in that process, Ranks said, was that it was too tightly tethered to specific hardware requirements. For example, a lot of the solutions revolved around two-generation-old tablets, which made getting the supply difficult.
But DoD also stumbled across some solutions during this ramping-up process, in some cases to problems it didn’t know it had. For example, it created CVR as a catch-all backup measure, in case its remote VPN failed. It turned out to be more valuable than they realized.
“One of the things we learned is that there was a huge latent demand in the DoD for a capability to easily collaborate with your team, to easily jump off call, to flip between working on a document together, back and forth. These are not new discoveries for industry, but for DoD, where we didn’t have all of this capability, I think it was a revelation,” Ranks said. “We also, because we built this out as an enterprise system — meaning a DoD-wide enterprise system, as opposed to something that was service-unique — there’s fewer barriers to collaboration across the military services, and the other agencies and field activities that make up the Department of Defense. And I think we’re looking very hard right now at what we can preserve.”
Specifically, Ranks said those priorities for preservation are:
The capability to collaborate,
The capability to collaborate from outside the network perimeter through zero trust, and,
In the longer term, the ability to leverage personal devices.
How the Intelligence Community is adapting
Within the Intelligence Community, experiences have been more varied. La’Naia Jones, acting CIO for the IC within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said there have likewise been a few remote classified pilots, but those are few and far between.
“I don’t want to paint the picture, or the mirage, that we have people in the intelligence community that are accessing classified data from home. Because that’s just not the case,” Jones said during the panel. “We’re looking at it as what can we do? And within that classified information, what makes it classified? And are there elements and parts or pieces or processes that we can do on a lower classified domain that can mitigate that?”
Instead, Jones said agencies within the IC who primarily handle classified work have embraced factors relying less on technology, and geared more toward the human component. Flexible schedules and time-sharing agreements are largely the rule for IC employees who require the use of a secure compartmented information facility (SCIF).
But some agencies are innovating around their responses. One such agency is the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), a component of the State Department. Geoff Fowler, INR’s CIO, said the department was well-situated for telework ahead of the pandemic, and mostly worked on fairly robust, unclassified systems. But for its higher classified work, it realized that enabling remote enclaves would be difficult, and doing so in a rush would be even more so.
So it didn’t even try.
“What we did is we recognized that the business environment had changed around us with COVID, with distributed customer sets, teleworking, as well as the producers of intelligence teleworking. And so we changed our business model,” Fowler said. “We focused a lot on what we could do with unclassified information. So there was a large emphasis on enabling use of open source, producing new product lines, thinking about how to provide value to traditional customers of intelligence, and how to do it with largely open source-based commentaries.”
And in cases where it couldn’t do that, INR also turned to the human component. It cancelled core hours, timeframes where employees were required to be in the office. That gave employees more flexibility around when they were able to come in and perform their classified work, which was especially helpful to those with children. But, much like those with children, INR found that too much flexibility wasn’t necessarily a good thing either.
“What we discovered is the importance of providing structure,” Fowler said. “I’m also a dad as a second job. And I’ve come to understand with my own children in this sort of environment, how important it is to provide a structure for them in a rather unstructured period. The same is true in business: Even though we need to provide flexibility to the workforce and enable their operations technologically and through business process, we also need to give them the structure that creates sort of a new normal for them.”
Establishing that new normal is important, Fowler said, because things won’t go back to the pre-COVID normal anytime soon.
“We might think that COVID-19 is what is having us do the telework right now,” Fowler said. “And then when it goes away, this goes away, but I don’t think so. I think we’re going to be living in this world for quite some time to come.”
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.