IT & Networks

Agencies prep for mass telework as coronavirus looms

With coronavirus spreading across the United States, several federal agencies are taking necessary steps to prepare their networks in case telework becomes mandatory.

There is unlikely to be consistency across government in how well employees could accomplish their missions while working virtually. Different agencies and even different departments within the same agency may face a much harder or easier time than their fellows depending on the scalability of their systems, number of telework-approved employees and level of security of their work. For some, in-person work is the only viable option, while others have already invested in the IT infrastructure and employee training to easily keep people home for an extended period of time.

Federal Times asked all 24 CFO Act agencies and other small agencies, such as the Census Bureau and IRS, if they have performed stress tests on their networks. At least one agency, NASA, held an agencywide telework day last week to tests its systems’ preparedness for mass telework.

Some Cabinet-level departments are also testing their systems. At the Department of Health and Human Services, Deputy Secretary Eric Hagan wrote in a March 9 memo to staff that the agency was “evaluating and actively testing our IT systems to ensure we are prepared for greater than usual telework if required.”

“Employees who participate in telework are encouraged to take their laptops and work assignments home daily in the event access to their place of duty is temporarily restricted,” Hagan wrote. "Employees who do not have current telework agreements are encouraged to work with their supervisors to put one in place, if appropriate.”

Department of Justice acting-Chief Information Officer Melinda Rogers said in a statement to Federal Times that it’s “in the process of testing the organization’s telework resiliency, starting with ensuring that appropriate telework agreements are in place, assessing our capacities, and encouraging staff to test their mobile devices and remote access connections.”

“The department components have been given flexibility to test on their own schedules, working closely with the Office of the Chief Information Officer," Rogers said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Interior told Federal Times that the department is “confident” that its technology is “adequately prepared for increased telework,” but is leaving stress tests up to local offices.

“Given that situations arise at the local or regional level, individual offices may choose to conduct operational stress tests to ensure that they can fulfill their local mission,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that on any given day, it has 1,300 employees telework.

“Even in instances of inclement weather, the department has never come close to the system’s maximum capacity,” a spokesperson said. “The department continuously monitors the systems and, should our needs change, we will plan accordingly.”

According to a spokesperson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency is “conducting, and will continue to conduct, stress tests on our systems and make any modifications needed" and is working directly with employees to make sure they are ready for telework.

A spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency said that the agency was prepared for widespread telework.

“EPA has a robust Continuity of Operations Program and, as outlined in the OPM Guidance, has a telework-ready workforce with the technology to support it," an EPA spokesperson said. "We regularly use teleworking capabilities to support the EPA workforce in performing the mission of the agency.”

On March 10, an employee who worked on the 9th floor of the Securities and Exchange Commission was diagnosed with coronavirus, leading the SEC to direct 9th floor employees to work from home and encouraging other employees to telework as well.

Smaller agencies are also ensuring their IT infrastructure is prepared. An adviser for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that the agency was “testing the telework readiness of its workforce” on Friday. A spokesperson for the National Science Foundation said that the agency is considering a mandatory telework day to test its capacity, but no final decisions have been made.

A spokesperson at the Social Security Administration said that its VPN infrastructure can be scaled up to be used by the entire workforce. Its most recent stress test was Jan. 29.

The Bureau of Fiscal Service is conducting a “tabletop exercise” to test its IT systems. The spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency said that the agency is holding an “agencywide connectivity drill to establish our ability to perform our mission while working remotely" as part of its planning, but did not provide specific details.

This is a developing story. It will be updated.

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