42 million unemployment claims were made between March and May of 2020.1 Compared to the 5.1 million unemployment claims made in the entirety of 2019, the gravity of that number is halting. But for federal government agencies, there was no time to pause.
During the global pandemic—just as all other national and state emergencies—federal government agencies have been tasked with providing answers and solutions amidst the nation’s most daunting challenges. With the rapidly increasing intensity of the COVID-19 global emergency, it created an overwhelming surge in demand for government services, spiking network activity. Specific to the U.S., agency networks and systems faced significant pressure to deliver much-needed services while also coping with debilitating system failures caused by outdated IT systems and infrastructure.
Without modernized IT systems adequately scaled to demand, government agencies jeopardize their ability to fulfill and deliver critical services in a time of crisis. In one recent analysis, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on the need to develop modernization plans for critical legacy systems, identifying areas that suffer from unsupported hardware and software, security vulnerabilities and more.2 Fortunately, there are some effective and straightforward next steps that agencies can implement to strengthen their IT infrastructure to get ahead and provide mission-critical services.
During times of crisis, government agencies are challenged to process dramatic increases in requests for service. The deluge of consumer traffic can cause system crashes during the most critical times. In one example from last year, IT infrastructure at the Small Business Administration (SBA) built to support $30 billion in annual loan applications was suddenly inundated with $310 billion in requests from small businesses in crisis.3 As a result, the SBA’s electric loan processing and computer systems experienced a crash that caused cascading problems with delivering services to those who needed them most. With experience gained from these difficult lessons of the pandemic, agencies must now bolster IT infrastructure to be ready to meet future emergency swells in demand.
Of all the changes we experienced during the pandemic, perhaps none were more fundamentally disruptive and transformative than the mass migration to a work-from-home model and the transition of traditional in-person functions to a virtual environment. Federal agencies experienced high rates of both remote work and virtualization of services. According to a survey by the Government Business Council (GBC), 63% of federal government employees began working from home during 2020.4
The Department of Defense (DoD) reacted to this rise in remote work by limiting network capacity and sorting their workforce into three categories, prioritized by the need to access internal networks.5 Additionally the DoD blocked streaming services on its network in an effort to reserve capacity for critical services. With no end in sight to teleworking, agencies must deploy high-capacity networks and support workers in varied access environments, with the ability to adjust QoS according to fluctuating business requirements.
Another troubling trend rising in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is the disruptive and even debilitating impacts of cyberattacks on institutions, municipalities and individuals all around the globe.6 Due to the government’s dispersed network, federal agencies are especially vulnerable to cybercrime and an attractive target for malicious actors seeking sensitive data. With agencies adapting systems and networks to support staff working remotely, cybercriminals are taking advantage of new vulnerabilities created by increased entry points to government networks to steal important data, generate profits and cause chaos. Unfortunately, many agencies were already working at a disadvantage—it has been reported that most federal agencies have yet to reach the cybersecurity requirements laid out in the Federal Cybersecurity Workforce Assessment Act of 2015.7 As threats continue to emerge, agencies must make it a priority to pursue enhanced cybersecurity for their networks.
As painful as these experiences have been for agencies, their workforces and those who rely on the important services they provide, they have prompted an arguably long-overdue critical review of government IT systems and processes.
For example, the SBA has responded to problems with its loan processing system by increasing processor memory, upgrading existing technology and establishing a pacing mechanism for loan applications.8 And over the course of the past year, the Department of Homeland Security has increased its cybersecurity protections for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
While there is still much to do to adequately protect federal agencies and scale to surge capacity in times of crisis, these are important steps toward strengthening IT infrastructure for critical government services. By addressing the need for increased network bandwidth, deploying smart solutions that scale to fluctuating requirements, bolstering network cybersecurity and replacing outdated systems, agencies will ensure they are positioned to execute at the highest levels and maintain service to the public—even in unpredictable environments.
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