DISA working on improvements to telework, ensuring it’s here to stay

The Defense Information Systems Agency helped the Defense Department pivot to telework at breakneck speeds at the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, but now government officials are planning for the world that comes after.

What they are expecting is more employee freedom, integration between services and virtual business card exchanges.

Within 30 days of the pandemic taking hold, DISA increased its storage capacity by 400%. It provisioned circuits that increased network capacity by nearly 500 gigabits per second, and increased virtual private network access by more than 1,000% to about 122,000 telework connections a day.

DoD leadership has been converted to the gospel of telework, and even once coronavirus goes away, it’s safe to say work will never look the same again.

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“Telework certainly removes distractions,” Chief of Navy Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell said recently. “Teleworking has helped us be very efficient and very productive, and I think it’s true for the entire Navy that what we look like on the tail end of this as we come out of it and how we manage and lead our workforce will be different than pre-COVID.”

Some of DISA’s top managers of the telework system say in the next six months to a year that DoD will need to figure out how to continue making telework easier and cost effective for the department and workers.

“Right now we’ve got Zoom and all these other capabilities,” Lt. Col. Nikolaus Ziegler, senior innovations officer at DISA, said. “If you do have a government furnished piece of equipment, you don’t have cameras turned on, you don’t have the ability to download certain apps that aren’t approved and you don’t have all these other things.”

Ziegler said DISA will be working on bringing down the cost of bring-your-own-device so those apps can be used more effectively.

“Right now if you have a NIPR device at work and a SIPR device at work and now you’re getting NIPR and SIPR-deployable devices that are mobile then you are costing the government thousands of dollars just to get access from multiple locations,” Ziegler said.

However, the future could be different.

“If you’re paying for your own data, and you’re paying for your own transport, and the DoD is willing to make sure that it’s secure enough for you to access all of that data from a personal device, then we’re talking about cost savings and we’re talking about speed,” he said. “We’re also talking about the ability to bring younger generations into the DoD where they’re used to a mobile endpoint in their hand and using In the same way that they do at home, as well as on the job.”

DISA is also working within its own limits when it comes to keeping the telework boat afloat.

“There’s so many tools out there that have been available, but haven’t had a high adoption rate because a lot of folks are just comfortable sticking with what they’re used to,” Carissa Landymore, program manager for cloud storage at DISA, said Tuesday during an AFCEA DC event. “COVID kind of gave us all that push that said we’ve got to start adopting. We quickly realized this is this is a marathon. This is not a sprint.”

DISA wants to improve its virtual environment that teleworkers use by adopting a Microsoft Office 365 and weaving in better security and cloud features.

“What we want to look at is how do we do this emerging technology review and provide education to all of the DoD on what we’re looking at in the future,” Ziegler said. “Then we can provide that base capability for this COVID or post-COVID environment. And then the services can spend their dollars on their tactical requirements, because this collaboration solutions that we’re looking at right now for at home doesn’t translate into a forward leaning tactical environment all the time.”

DISA also needs to keep its foot on the pedal after its initial push without tiring its workers out.

“I quickly had to let the team know ‘Hey, we were doing 24/7 operations, but we have families at home,” Landymore said. “I have little kids and it became really difficult to have a good work-life balance. We quickly had to say ‘Try really hard to work your normal core hours, but have a better quality of life, try to work that work-life balance, and understand that sometimes your family is going to take you away.’”

There are advantages DoD is feeling department-wide as well. Multiple officials have talked about increased productivity. Carlen Capenos, director of DISA’s small business office, said her office has seen a “huge uptick” in small business contracting.

“We’re already $1.2 billion ahead of the spend[ing] from last year, that’s 20%. faster where we haven’t had that much more income or more money to spend,” she said. “I think the fact that not only did we just throw the audible to go to telework, but we work faster, better and more efficiently. When we look at the extra COVID dollars we received, that was a big uptick. We had over 500 single actions of contracts for COVID and a good part, 70%, of those were executed for small businesses.”

Capenos said keeping up with industry is easier in some ways through telework as well. While the advantage of face-to-face communication is gone, the exhaustion of it is decreased.

“We did one event with the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, and we were able to meet with 19 different women-owned small businesses in one day,” Capenos said. “Normally when you do it, you’re so physically and mentally exhausted. Then you have to get home from D.C. or wherever. Whereas here, I could sit at my desk and at the end of the day, I’m actually a little more energized because I met a whole bunch of companies that we didn’t know about.”

DISA is now working on setting up a virtual matchmaking event with the Ft. Meade Alliance.

The agency and other DoD components are also seeing some advantages in hiring. Usually, an employer would need to recruit talent in its local area or entice people to move there.

Now, DoD has an opportunity to recruit talent without geographic constrictions.

“We happen to have a headquarters located in the National Capital Region, but there’s really no reason we couldn’t take advantage of talent that’s in Kansas, frankly,” Brian Herman, director of services development at DISA, said. “If we can get great people and they can live where, where they can be productive, and be near family and do all the things that they need to do to support themselves, we’re likely to have happier, more productive folks.” — SM


Acquisition knowledge for future emergencies

The interagency rapid acquisition task force set up to help procure medical supplies for the government during the coronavirus pandemic is making it easier for future officials to respond to emergencies.

The Defense Department’s Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) is creating a playbook for DoD’s acquisition and sustainment joint rapid acquisition cell.

JATF worked with the Department of Health and Human Services and FEMA to quickly supply N95 masks and respirators to hospitals around the country.

“It could support another pandemic, but it could respond to other types of federal disasters as well,” Ellen Lord, DoD undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment said. “What we are looking to do is to have that core group be ready to stand up and support federal emergencies, augmented as we have augmented the JATF.”

DoD is planning on transferring JATF operations to HHS and FEMA later this fall so they have the enduring capability to take care of the medical supply chain.

“We will be dispersing those individuals that have specifically been working on the JATF to other functions later this fall, but we will maintain the capability to rapidly reconstitute the capability if needed,” Lord said.

So far, DoD has teamed up with HHS to award nearly $630 million in expanding the domestic industrial base for medical research suppliers.

Those include contracts to deliver vaccines and syringes once the United States tests and approves a shot to stop coronavirus. — SM


Wanted: Military child care solutions

A bipartisan, cross-committee group of legislators are calling on the Defense Department to come up with more creative ways to address its child care shortage in the face of COVID-19.

“The waitlist for child care are getting longer in every city across the country,” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) told Federal News Network. “What I’d like to see is DoD working with local child care facilities in their respective areas, because those are already entities that are certified and in some cases need the help. Some of them have sadly lost a lot of clients, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d like to see the military support them.”

In a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, 35 members of the House Armed Services Committee and House Appropriations Committee asked DoD to work with community leaders, veteran service member organizations and state and local governments to provide more child care for service members and their families.

Due to coronavirus-related school closures about 1.2 million children under the age of 13 in military families will now require child care.

“While the DoD has an extensive network of Child Development Centers that provide low cost and subsidized options for military families, approximately 18,000 military children remain on waitlists nationwide — a number which does not account for the surge of school-aged children that will require child care this fall,” lawmakers state in the letter.

Haaland said she has heard from service members in her district who live on Kirkland Air Force Base, and have had a hard time adjusting to the pandemic.

“They absolutely face added challenges given their essential roles within their job, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic that has changed so many things,” she said. “We feel that if we are able to help make this issue a little easier on military families, that it will protect our national security, quite frankly.” — SM