With initial urgency passed, agencies using pandemic to rethink, innovate processes

If you are saying “enough already, I get it,” with all the stories about how agencies quickly adapted to the remote work environment during the COVID-19 pandemic, join my club.

Without a doubt, there are tremendous success stories ranging from the Defense Department’s Common Virtual Remote (CVR) environment to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ ability to sustain and thrive in a telehealth world to dozens of other agencies with similar tales of industry and agencies upgrading networks, moving applications to the cloud and expanding access with an urgency rarely seen.

So like any good journalist would ask, what have you done for me lately?

Obviously, there is some facetiousness in that question as well as some truth.

The good news is early successes during the pandemic emergency now are leading to long-term changes in technology, business process and, of course, people.

Take the Coronavirus Supply Chain Task Stabilization Task Force led by FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Rear Adm. John Polowczyk, the supply chain task force lead in HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, said the creation of a supply chain control tower is giving the federal response better insights than ever before about the state of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk supply chain task force lead at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

“You can’t manage the supply chain unless you can see it. So we went to the six largest providers of medical supplies and asked them to share their data. We had six different business systems to deal with, and they all dumped their data into the cloud in FEMA. We worked with each distributor to make sure all the data lined up,” said Polowczyk at last week’s AFCEA Bethesda’s 2020 Tech Summit. “By mid-April, I could essentially could see orders from hospitals, nursing homes, first responders and other healthcare organizations to the medical supply chain. We could see how the medical supply chain was getting material in from manufacturers, what they had in their warehouses and what they were delivering to their customers. By mid-April we had the ability to understand supply chain fill rates, how the system was meeting the needs of the nation, and we could aggregate demand based on orders from customers, which we did.”

He said this data helped the government make the first estimates of national demand for personal protective equipment, and federal acquisition professionals at DoD used it to expand domestic production through the Defense Production Act (DPA).

Polowczyk said the cloud and data analytics tools now are helping the coronavirus task force prepare for what many experts are calling the third wave of the pandemic this winter.

“We have expanded this and added actual data from hospitals and long term care facilities. I now get inputs from 6,000 hospitals that treat COVID patients and about 15,400 Medicare/Medicaid nursing home facilities are telling me days of supply, how many items they have on hand and we are trying to start to use data analytics to produce individual burn rates at the county level to understand demand,” he said. “We are using epidemiological data on top of the supply chain information to get into forecasting of where the network needs to pivot to. I’m down to producing spreadsheets where we pass these and have conversations with commercial partners and the state departments of health and emergency managers where we are giving lists of hospital systems and nursing homes who are saying they are short of N-95 masks or isolation gowns or whatever.”

He credited the work of the Defense Logistics Agency, Boston Consulting Group and Navy Supply Corps reservists—about 10 people in all—in building this data analytics platform in a matter of weeks.

Polowczyk’s success story was one of several that emerged at the AFCEA Bethesda 2020 Tech Summit where the integration of technology, data, business processes and good old human know how is changing the way agencies work for the long term.

State reimagining processes

While not every story is as dramatic as the supply chain task force’s, the impact nonetheless is real.

The State Department is reimagining many of its business and administrative processes.

Stuart McGuigan, State’s chief information officer, said a cross-functional task force is looking at all technology, training, policy and processes to identify which ones worked during the pandemic, and which didn’t and need to be changed.

“It will be an agile approach so we are identifying our top recommendations and then piloting, learning, iterating, and rolling them out,” he said. “It’s not just about technology but it’s about a new way of working. So this will be a continuous process.”

The other area McGuigan said State really evolved in is accepting a minimum viable product (MVP).

He said the longer it took to develop a new capability or upgrade an existing one, the longer employees couldn’t work.

“One of the things we don’t always have in IT is a really clear focus on the MVP, what is the least amount of capability we need to put in production to enable people to get to work and no more because we have to move on to the next thing? Can we learn? Can we iterate? Can we put things in place quickly, understand whether they are working or not, and then be able to acknowledge when they are not working and fix them?” he said. “We suddenly found ourselves in an agile mode. The productivity of the team increased exponentially. I was just amazed and so impressed by how quickly the team was able to provide secure access to the applications that were needed to run the department.”

McGuigan said it’s not just IT that is more agile, but the entire organization because State is becoming a more evidence-based department.

“The ability to have information that is absolutely current to everybody who is involved and to use whatever tools are available to do that and not fussing too much about extra bells and whistles, and really focusing on the minimum capabilities was a very impressive thing to support and watch,” he said. “The Center for Analytics has been doing modeling to try to anticipate emerging events.”

He said he sees more opportunities to have diplomacy to move at the speed of technology because of digital services and tools. The pandemic forced a culture change of using collaboration software that would’ve normally taken years to get people to change their habits.

McGuigan said he sees similar opportunities for that type of culture change across the department.

These are two examples of many where agencies aren’t just taking a post-urgency breadth, but figuring out how technology, people and processes can change to sustain the initial successes of the pandemic.

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