From 12 to 12,000: How LA scaled up telework in two weeks

The Los Angeles Information Technology Agency built a telework platform that gives remote staff members access their office computer, including full access to any installed software, files, shared drives and more.

As state governors and city leaders issue shelter-in-place orders, some government employees find they still must go into the office to do their jobs. That doesn’t have to be the case, though.

With some quick planning, Los Angeles’s Information Technology Agency’s CIO Ted Ross and his team set up a platform to accommodate teleworking for many of the city government’s 50,000 employees. Their effort includes Connect2LACity.org, a work-from-home resources platform that shows city workers how to access their Google mail and calendar, connect to their work computer and where to turn for help.

GCN spoke with Ross to find out how his team did it. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GCN: What’s the situation in LA?

Ross: On March 13, we had 12 people working on Connect2LACity. We were given shelter-at-home orders on March 18 and formal orders came down for city employees to start telecommuting wherever possible. On March 20, we had 2,159 people on the platform, and by April 1, we’ve got 11,600 people processed. To use yesterday [March 31] for an example, we had almost 5,000 people working at the same time at one point during the day.

This is full capability. This is the ability to effectively access all of the same shared drives, apps and tools that they access at work. The intent is to make sure that they’re an effective workforce from home.

How were you able to ramp up so much and so quickly?

It started off first with brainstorming meetings. We sat down infrastructure, application, management and other staff and said, “Listen, if we need to support the telecommuting of over 15,000 employees, how would we do it?”

We started off with proofs-of-concept. We demonstrated to everybody what we thought it would look like and how it would work. We had to do levels of testing to ensure that we could scale, because, like I said, we’re here to support 15,000 to 20,000 telecommuters. Then we had to work through the process: How would all this work? How would we communicate this? What kinds of tools and what kinds of resources do we have?

How is bandwidth holding up?

There is the bandwidth that we need to be able to traverse the city network, and we’ve been doing fine with that. We monitor it proactively. Then there’s also bandwidth to the homes of the employees, and sometimes that can have issues.

Last week we actually had a couple of days in which a major home internet provider was saying that they were having issues with some of their bandwidth, and it was affecting some of our employees. It’s interesting to see that with mass telecommuting, it’s not just infrastructure that you support, it’s infrastructure that others support.

Are people using their own equipment?

Yes, they are. We knew it would be impossible to order enough laptops to hand out to people, and one thing we’ve learned about telecommuting is it’s not about the hardware. It’s really about the software and security. It was about taking advantage of those capabilities that people already had at home. So, yes, we are leveraging people’s home internet, we are leveraging people’s home computers, we are using the kinds of tools that have minimal impact on their desktops or laptops.

How are you managing security?

We made sure to establish a platform that had security through and through. Everything from multifactor authentication to ensure that it’s truly you who’s logging in, all the way down to encryption at rest and in transit when it comes to your connecting with the city of LA and with our applications. We actually are proactively monitoring to make sure that departments are not using insecure methods.

Did you have continuity of operations plans in place that you built on?

We had plans. I don’t think we had tools. Coronavirus is a terrible thing, but it is testing our ability to use technology remotely – our ability to run call centers, our ability to run council and commission meetings, our ability to process business licenses and permits. Now we’re forced to modernize our technology and modernize our processes. As the saying goes, necessity of the mother of invention, and we need to run a city with as many telecommuters as possible to prevent the spread of the virus. It’s allowing us to invent and build the solutions that, honestly, we probably should have always had.

Many lessons will come from this. What do you think some might be?

I think it’s clearly shown us how much you can accomplish through telework. I would venture to say that as a city and as an organization, we would more seriously consider telecommuting and teleworking as a part of our lifestyle.

I think another takeaway is a reminder as to how important it is to build virtual tools and capabilities that allow you to separate where you are from what you can do, because that’s really very old-fashioned, isn’t it? That you have to be physically in a place to access some of your work tools? Making some of our work tools secure and accessible anytime, anywhere, I think is a really important lesson for how modern government needs to operate.

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