From Cloud First to Virtual First: The Next Focus for Technology Strategic Planning

For the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and speak with CIOs from across the country about their strategic planning efforts for technology. Many smaller local governments have struggled with maintaining their on-premise infrastructure while keeping up with the demands of technology with small workforces and limited budgets. Larger local governments have struggled with similar issues while also focusing on how to architect a technology roadmap that meets the needs of thousands of users and maintains or reduces technical capital investment.

As some of you have heard me describe, Loudoun County (Va.) began the journey to evaluate our technology infrastructure and applications in 2017. After a significant power issue that shut down the County’s primary data center for 26 hours, Loudoun embarked on the development of a technology roadmap that has resulted in the shift of data center infrastructure from County owned facilities, to fit for purpose data centers. We also began, and have focused on, a “cloud first” journey, migrating many of the County’s on-premise applications to cloud hosted solutions such as IaaS and SaaS.

Many local governments have made significant progress in improving their technical infrastructure and applications through similar purposeful strategic planning efforts. COVID-19 is introducing the next wave of technical strategic planning in what I believe is the next focus area for technology planning; the “Virtual First” Technology Roadmap.

Virtual First  is a strategic, focused roadmap on not only what has been put into place during the pandemic, but a specific focus on how to deliver services in the long term, based on a dispersed workforce not operating out of traditional brick-and-mortar government facilities. To facilitate the “new next”, we must all adopt a virtual-first mindset – how can we deliver these services virtually, first? Virtual delivery can be anything from staff working from home, or staff flexing from socially distanced hoteling spaces.

To be clear, there are many services that local government performs that will never be virtual first, nor should they be. However, I believe that the pandemic has dramatically shifted the way in which government operations may work and as technology leaders, we must be prepared for that shift.

To be successful in developing a virtual-first strategy, technology leaders must plan to address several key issues. Those include at a minimum:

1)     Workforce Technology – Has technology been deployed to employees to facilitate Virtual First? This includes not only the PCs or laptops that staff are provided, but larger or dual monitors, telephony solutions that allow communications to be seamless regardless of location, etc. This also includes identifying those employees who may not have sufficient internet access from a remote location and how to address, if possible, the connectivity capability for those employees.

2)     Infrastructure – Is the local government’s network architected and scaled in such a manner to accommodate remote workers through Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections, Virtual Desktop connectivity or other means?

3)     Applications and Solutions – Are the applications and solutions currently in place, adapted to a virtual first business process model? (I’ll spend more time on this topic below.)

4)     Security – The security infrastructure for a virtual first plan is critical and cannot be overlooked. With a change in the way users and systems are connected, ensuring that all aspects of the security infrastructure have been evaluated and analyzed is vital to protecting your users and technology assets. 

To begin Virtual First strategic planning, I believe that technology leaders must begin meeting and holding workshops with the organization’s departments to understand how those department’s business processes must work as we shift to this new way of working.

I’ve heard so many stories of solutions that have been put in place by technology departments, during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that government operations and service levels were maintained. Some of these solutions were put in place based upon the addition of functionality built upon industry leading platforms local governments already owned. Some of the solutions were just one- time fixes to facilitate functionality, such as chat. These are what I call “the bubble gum and duct tape” fixes.

It’s clear that the COVID-19 crisis is not going away and that the technology changes made during the pandemic represent not only the “new normal”, but also the “new next.” I believe what local governments have put in place currently represents the “new normal” because we are not going to be able to take it away. Technology has been delivered to departments and taking away that technology and the solutions that have been provided is not an option. We all must come to terms with the fact that the new normal is here. What we all also must come to terms with is that the “new next” is also here.

We must be meeting with our organizations to discuss how to strategically invest in solutions that will facilitate virtual first and ensure that we shift our focus from “bubble gum and duct tape” fixes put in place to address the immediate need during the pandemic, to strategic investments that address common needs across departments and which will allow a remote workforce to continue to deliver service at equal or greater service levels.

I am hoping to start a dialogue about Virtual First, both with local government and industry partners, to brainstorm how we can strategically plan for success as we all move into the “new next.”

Wendy L. Wickens is Director of Information Technology for Loudoun County (Va.) and Chair of CompTIA's Public Technology Institute's City/County Technology Leadership Council.

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