COVID-19 reshaped how federal employees work — but will it last?

Despite longstanding technology challenges with legacy IT and challenges recruiting and hiring in-demand talent, agencies under the pandemic have reshaped the way they use technology to meet their missions.

Nine months after standing up long-term telework, agency officials are looking at which lessons learned will stick around after the pandemic, when mandatory telework no longer applies to large swathes of the federal workforce.

A study from The Partnership for Public Service and Microsoft highlights examples of how agencies this year have implemented remote governance, stood up digital service or used artificial intelligence to research COVID-19.

The pandemic also broke down – at least for now – some cultural hurdles. Peter Kamocsai, the study’s lead author and a manager at the Partnership focused on AI issues, said the pandemic “shattered negative notions around telework and the feasibility of long-term, large-scale telework.”

“When governments look to use technology in the future, the goal shouldn’t be a return to the pre-pandemic status quo,” he said Tuesday during a virtual launch of the report.

Despite the IT challenges in the early months of the pandemic, agencies out of necessity have rethought the way employees do their jobs.

The Energy Department, for example, has created the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory, which connects the agency’s 17 national labs together and gives researchers remote access to the technical and scientific capabilities of those labs.

Office of Science Director Chris Fall said DOE is looking at how remote science could play a bigger role in its mission, and whether conducting remote experiments is a feasible model for the agency in the long-term.

But the meantime, Fall said national labs are benefiting from videoconference and collaboration tools.

“Under normal circumstances, they compete as much as they collaborate, because they’re looking to get funding and want to hold up the flag of glory on a project, under COVID. They’ve all come together as one team [with] bottom-up ideas. A large part of that is virtual technology that’s enabled us to be in constant contact, see each other’s faces, understand where we’re coming from, and work together,” Fall said.

The study also highlights the work of the Veterans Affairs Department, which created a chatbot in three weeks to handle a surge of inquires about COVID-19. The VA’s deployment of that bot gave call-center employees more time to handle more complex requests from veterans.

The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, meanwhile, has pulled together medical images, MRI scans, and CT scans of COVID patients to create a “sandbox” of training data for AI tools

The Small Business Administration, meanwhile, has fielded AI and machine learning during the pandemic to flag anomalies when disbursing CARES Act funding.

Sanjay Gupta, SBA’s Chief Technology Officer, said the agency also used natural language processing for “sentiment analysis” on the millions of customer service emails it received, and used that feedback to adjust frequently asked questions on its webpage for pandemic relief.

“These economic recovery programs were in the evolutionary stages, and certainly as we learned more from the customer sentiment, it allowed us to figure out what changes were necessary to make to our environment,” Gupta said.

IT investments before the pandemic, such as cloud migration, allowed SBA’s website to handle spikes in web traffic, like the nine-fold increase in less than an hour that happened when President Donald Trump tweeted with a link to the agency’s COVID resources.

But aside from those investments, Gupta said “challenging the status quo” and adopting an agile mindset allowed the SBA to successfully scale up and disburse CARES Act funds.

“In the last eight, nine last months, we’ve seen that technology is no longer the periphery or the enabler of business, but it’s core to the business,” he said.

Gupta said SBA has created a playbook that distills some of the lessons learned in working with the Treasury Department on economic recovery assistance, and FEMA for disaster assistance mission.

“There are certain, usual-suspect organizations that most organizations have a closer relationship with. What we’re saying is, the technology is there, the ability is there, let’s make the capability to meet those ends, and use the technology to be able to extend our organization’s footprint, so we have a richer, more engaging dialogue,” Gupta said.

While DOE has been successful in using assistive technology to enable researchers to work from home, Fall said the agency is still looking at whether these tools will remain in place for the long-term.

“Scientists like to get together, just like everyone else. A lot of science is sitting around over a cup of coffee and hashing things out, and we want to preserve that. But boy, there are a ton of opportunities, we’re being very successful in terms of what we’re doing remotely,” Fall said.

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