The Small Business Administration is no stranger to disaster response.
The Cabinet-level agency is used to handing out disaster relief loans in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes. But the SBA has never experienced anything like the new coronavirus pandemic, where it has seen an unprecedented demand for its services.
“We issued [more] loan guarantees ... in 14 days than SBA had ever done in 14 years,” said SBA Chief Information Officer Maria Roat.
SBA, which has thousands of employees across about 100 locations across the United States, serves as a microcosm of the work federal agencies have had to complete as its employees work from home during the coronavirus. Federal agencies have had to onboard personnel remotely and support disaster relief programs, while continuing normal operations.
SBA has hired “a few thousand" new employees in response to COVID-19, Roat said, onboarding them virtually across the country. Meanwhile, at the General Services Administration, they’ve virtually brought on about 100 employees in the last six weeks, according to its deputy CIO, Beth Killoran.
“We were able to establish their accounts ... configure their devices and ship them to their homes,” Killoran said. “They were then able to take virtual oaths and do their online paperwork using that computer and start on day one just as if they’d been in the office.”
The GSA, Killoran said, has moved entirely to telework. But the agency has had some network challenges of in the process. Its network in the Washington, D.C., region experienced issues because it wasn’t prepared for 100 percent telework. In response, the GSA had to shift some of its network load in the area to other regional networks. The GSA also had to send portal WiFi devices to employees who lived in rural areas with poor internet access, Killoran said.
Both Roat and Killoran said their agencies have seen an uptick in use of collaboration tools. At SBA, the tools “really enhanced” how its workforce was able to prepare and carry out its disaster response mission.
The mass telework has also pushed SBA to use digital signatures instead of printing out documents for signatures. Roat said she has only approved four requests to print at home since the pandemic began.
“From an organization standpoint, we were prepared,” Roat said. “Not only for telework, but for the surge because responding to telework is part of what we do."
The GSA already had unique challenges of its own in its role as the manager of federal buildings across the country. Work hasn’t stopped on renovation and construction of federal buildings and courthouses, meaning that inspections haven’t stopped either. Normally, inspectors must complete their work in person, but the GSA is exploring ways to make this virtual, like sending geo-tagged photos to proper authorities to limit human contact.
The GSA is also exploring the use of robots for remote visibility into facilities. The GSA has ongoing drone pilots used for building damage inspection because of tornado damage in several areas of the country, Killoran said.
The GSA also deployed its digital analytics in tandem with the Johns Hopkins University to map coronavirus cases and better understand the pandemic in areas it has buildings.
“We’re really looking at how do we build in new technology, some business analytical capabilities and predictive analytics to help us where we may have had to have a person in the middle so people can stay safe in their homes ... and not have to put themselves out there to potential exposure," Killoran said.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.