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The CIO’s Challenge in Confronting Coronavirus

Mar 5, 2020, 11:36 AM by Dr. Alan R. Shark, Executive Director, Public Technology Institute
Given the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus and the attention (and concern) that this rapidly spreading virus is causing in our communities and among government employees, this is an appropriate time for CIOs to review their agency’s IT planning and preparedness for dealing for major changes in how employees operate and how they will be able to deliver services.

Until recently, the local government CIO’s major worry when it came to virus detection was with regards to a government’s cybersecurity planning and how a virus might affect their IT infrastructure. Now we have a different type of virus that’s getting the CIO’s attention.

Given the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus and the attention (and concern) that this rapidly spreading virus is causing in our communities and among government employees, this is an appropriate time for CIOs to review their agency’s IT planning and preparedness for dealing for major changes in how employees operate and how they will be able to deliver services.

Just like any organization would review and test its Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP), with a focus on dealing with the impact of natural or man-made disasters, today’s smart CIO must be actively involved in the development of an organization’s COOP for dealing with the spread of COVID-19.

While planning for a possible or actual pandemic is similar to planning for a disaster (who does what, resources available, communications with the public), the immediate as well as long-term impacts are different.

Under a pandemic scenario, public workers and citizens alike may be required to stay in place and not come to a government office to work or to conduct business. While most COOP plans call for key managers to go to an emergency operations center to coordinate emergency response activities, few   contemplate the need to establish a virtual emergency operations center. Today, information technologies offer the possibility of a near seamless transition.

There are no less then 6 areas that require attention which begins with alerting and notifying workers and citizens.

Alert and Notification. In the case of a possible pandemic it is essential to alert and notify everyone in the area that their government will still operate albeit differently. This can be accomplished through emails, posts on Twitter and Facebook, communicating with the local media, and perhaps activating NOAA’s All Hazards Radio System. 

Establish Online Strategies - Digital Staging. Beyond notifying everyone that physical offices may be closed, it is equally important to let people know how they can communicate with government. Here having an enhanced web presence is essential. Working with the public information officer, the CIO needs to be able to make sure that the platforms that support government information platforms are functioning and be able to handle increased online capacity. Web Managers will need to be able to have full control of their websites and social media accounts from remote location. Extra staff may need to be assigned to handle a possible increase in traffic and be able to monitor any postings from citizens that may require help or to simply curate any posting that may be deemed to be inaccurate. Ideally, local governments need to take an inventory of what government services could be handled completely by online remote workers. Do they have the right equipment and access to adequate broadband at home? Do staff have headsets and guidelines as to how to conduct business online?  Does the government agency maintain an internet for internal communication?

The IT helpdesk might have to deal with a surge in helpdesk requests from staff and may need to provide 24/7 coverage as well as fixing problems on mobile equipment remotely.

Leadership Communications. CIOs would need to make sure that all elected leaders and senior staff have the proper equipment to conduct business online through video conferencing and other web-based technologies. Leadership communications consist of 2 parts they are, internal and external communications. Everyone needs to understand how they can communicate with their constituents and business operations managers.

 Application Review. This would be an excellent time for CIOs to meet with all the department heads and see what could be offered online (if not already) in case of an emergency/pandemic. For example, mental health and counseling might be offered online as opposed to having people go to a physical office. Permitting might be offered online. Might there be a need to change polices that reflect any changes in compensation and hours worked during an emergency basis as well as accepting last minute payments for government services.

Some questions to consider, can all government websites be effectively managed remotely and at the same time have staff coordinate with one another to insure a cohesive and consistent message?

Reaching the Unconnected. This may be the greatest challenge. According to some reports, up to 19% of the US population does not have direct access to broadband and hence, online services. For these people aside from just showing up at a government office will turn to a phone – landline or mobile. Here technology can play an important role in making sure critical phone communications can be switched to remote workers and placed in a cue during heavy call volume.

Review, Training and Practice. Even the best written plans fail when not practiced. Whether the COVID-19 Virus leads to a localized or national pandemic, now is an excellent time to take a step back and begin to review current plans, seek ways to improve business operations in case government facilities were forced to close, and make sure the underlying digital infrastructure can withstand an dramatic increase in demand.

As stated earlier local government are better prepared than ever before since so much has already moved to digital service delivery platforms.  An added plus is the fact that commercial broadband has become more reliable and available then in years past. The challenge for today’s CIO is to make sure the staff and digital infrastructure are prepared. This is where the “I” in the title chief information officer is fully recognized in the city or county’s governance operations.

Join CompTIA for a webinar Monday, March 9, on this topic The Local Government CIO Role in Preparing for Covid-19 and its Potential Impact on your Government’s Service Delivery.

Register here