A federal CIO tells industry how it can help during coronavirus pandemic

Federal agencies face an extraordinary challenge in dealing with the effects of the new coronavirus pandemic, with their workforce at home and their networks stretched.

For help, agencies have turned to industry. In this time of need, one federal chief information officer has a message for businesses looking to assist.

“If an agency reaches out to a vendor ... try to respond with urgency — with a sense of urgency that’s not usual,” Dorothy Aronson, the CIO of the National Science Foundation and co-chair of the federal CIO Council’s Workforce Committee, said March 31.

Aronson, speaking on a GovExec webinar, also said it’s helpful for contractors to keep track of where their services are deployed across government and the contacts within government agencies. For example, Aronson said, if a vendor provides a product to one department, and another department is seeking the same product, the vendor should connect the two agencies.

“It’s easier for us to establish interagency agreements than it is for us to establish a new contract,” she said. “So if you’re aware of your contacts across the government, that’s very helpful."

She also added that vendors should consider the stakeholders that agencies serve as those that could benefit from industry’s help. As an example, Aronson noted that the National Science Foundation works with universities on research projects, and those universities also need help during this time. The same goes for states, which are competing for the same resources.

“Helping NSF ... to survive might not be the end goal. The end goal is to help NSF fund universities so that universities can do research,” Aronson said. “It’s the same way with states. A lot of federal agencies are interacting with state governments, and focusing on enabling the federal government is important,” but states are also looking for help.

Tech adoption

Aronson added that new technology like Zoom, a videoconferencing platform, was in the process of being deployed when NSF began mass telework. After that, the agency underwent a “full court press.”

“People adopted it very quickly because the need was there,” she said.

In the third week of March, she pushed for electronic-document signing, an approach she said was already used by some employees, though others remained hesitant.

“The necessity drove the adoption of that tool as well,” Aronson said. “We’ve really picked up a lot of those skills. And then there’s some that we’re still in the middle of that we’re probably pushing a little bit harder than we would have if everybody was still on site.”

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