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Local gov drafts new playbook for remote support

The COVID-19 pandemic response has likely changed the way state and local IT officials will conduct business for the foreseeable future, experts said during a recent webinar.

The success many government organizations have had with teleworking, videoconferencing and providing digital services to the public proves that technology and workers are ready, Wendy Wickens, director of IT for Loudoun County, Va., said during a May 14 webinar hosted by the Public Technology Institute (PTI).

“We are ready for a renaissance in the way we deliver services in local government,” Wickens said. “What we’ve all learned from this is that local government can function just like any other Fortune 500 [or] 1,000 company out there and that we have found ways to ensure that we can deliver services -- and we can do it really, really well with our folks teleworking.”

About 70% of the world’s internet traffic may pass through Loudoun County, but not all regions are connected. Wickens’ team extended Wi-Fi to libraries in Loudon's rural western region so students without home connections could do their homework from cars in the parking lot.

Additionally, the county’s IT staff has had to adapt to changing demands of their customers – the teleworking county employees who have time-shifted their workdays to accommodate caring for and educating children at home. “We’re finding … a lot of our workers are flexing their hours, and this means we have to flex our hours,” Wickens said. “We’ve got on-call teams that answer after-hours calls.”

The VPN element of the county’s network and data center infrastructure was completed two weeks before COVID-19 hit. Today, it supports 2,000 county teleworkers and provides infrastructure and bandwidth for the town of Leesburg, too.

Bandwidth has been an issue in Latah County, Idaho, too, according to Laurel Caldwell, Latah's director of technology. “The lack of bandwidth was not a surprise to us, but it definitely was brought to the forefront,” Caldwell said. “That is something that our community and region is trying to solve, but obviously it isn’t ready for this crisis right now.”

To address it, some employees use their own cell phones to get internet at home. Others go to their offices in shifts to limit the number of people there, and others set up makeshift work spaces in other county buildings.

In Franklin County, Ohio, officials got creative to ensure that all its 6,000 employees had a device to use for teleworking. For instance, the Franklin County Data Center office rolled out laptops refreshed with Microsoft 365 at the end of 2019 and other laptops that were in stock. They also created “PC in a box,” meaning employees could take their work machines home.

One of the biggest challenges the county IT staff has faced has been in providing help-desk services from afar, said data center CIO Adam Frumkin. “We’ve [had to] figure out not only how we man a help desk for normal help-desk items but now the whole aspect of people calling in [from home] and saying, ‘PC’s not working. Why is it not working?’ … and being able to troubleshoot from that perspective,” Frumkin said.

The agility with which local governments’ IT departments have adapted to the pandemic has put them in the limelight. “None of this stuff was in any disaster recovery plan,” said Alan Shark, webinar facilitator and executive director of PTI. “We had to rewrite the book on this.”

Tom Lamar, Latah County Commission chairman, praised the IT staff’s efforts.

“Within minutes, hours and days of this crisis happening, the IT department … was responding and bringing Latah County up to speed on multiple levels,” Lamar said. “We’re not elected on our ability to run a laptop computer or connect that laptop computer to the internet or to whatever Zoom is, and so it’s been a strong learning curve with a lot of the [nine] elected officials within Latah County and with a lot of the department heads and then other employees.”

With widespread city and county closures expected to last 18 to 24 months, the ad hoc setup might become the new normal -- and for many, that’s not only OK, but welcome.

“The whole aspect of working remote is something that as a county we are now looking at and starting to rewrite some of the policies,” said Michael Stinziano, Franklin County auditor. He added that offering telework would be a competitive advantage for attracting millennials who don’t want to sit in an government office to work.

“I think there’s a lot of reform and innovation that we’re going to be going through as a whole because of this, not just from a government perspective but in general from a business perspective,” he said.

Editor's note: This article was changed June 5 to correct the location of Latah County. 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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