Focus on fundamentals: How Illinois flipped the work-from-home switch

Using their continuity of operations and disaster-recovery plans, Illinois officials quickly pivoted to a zero-trust, hybrid multi-cloud and multi-premise environment to support remote state workers.

State and IT officials in Illinois are reviewing continuity of operations (COOP) and disaster-recovery plans as they assess their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued stay-at-home orders on March 20. Within days, more than 25,000 of the state’s 50,000 employees were working remotely. Now, however, the state will have to adjust that massive scale-up when more workers return to their offices -- or as job functions move online for the long term. As of mid-June, 21,000 employees were still working remotely.

“DoIT is prepared to support agencies to continue work for home or transition back to the office, which is expected to vary,” Ron Guerrier, Illinois’ CIO and secretary of innovation and technology, and Lori Sorenson, the state’s CTO, wrote in an email to GCN.

The greatest challenges to remote work were in user training, they said. “The work-from-home decision occurred so quickly we didn’t have time to distribute user instructions in advance,” Sorenson said. “During the first several weeks, we were playing catch-up, distributing user guides all while our own staff were making the same transition.”

Adaptability was also crucial to effectively responding to technology demands as workers headed home. The state’s COOP plan was designed to address natural disasters -- earthquakes, floods and tornados --- not a pandemic, Guerrier said.

“The plans called for relocating staff and workload to other offices,” he said. “The plans did not consider the entire workforce working from home, and the technology needed for employees to be productive but also continue business transactions with the public that typically occurred in person.”

Still, officials used the COOP strategy as a foundation for their response. For example, the plan outlined the processes for assessing a situation, making decisions and communicating and executing on those decisions.

Another challenge was a lack of home broadband access -- a point of contention for state government workers, students, businesses and other Illinois residents, Sorenson said.

“Within days of announcing the stay-at-home order, so many daily activities shifted to online,” she said. “Many families found themselves with two, three and four people competing for their home broadband. Families with no home broadband struggled to participate in online learning and access to online services. Schools, libraries and businesses opened their Wi-Fi networks for families and students to access the Internet from the parking lot.”

To help, the Illinois Broadband Office, State Board of Education and DoIT published a map of parking lots across the state that offer free Wi-Fi. Broadband expansion is also in the works. In 2019, the state appropriated $420 million to expand access as part of the Connect Illinois initiative to improve broadband access, affordability and adoption. The first round of grant applications is under review.

“A key contributor in our ability to quickly respond to the pandemic at the State of Illinois was the priority we place on the foundational pillars of architecture, service management, data and analytics, program management and information security,” Guerrier said. “By understanding and focusing on these core areas, we were better able to build solutions to fit our environment and team.”

Before the stay-at-home order, the state had no enterprise work-from-home policy, less than 30% of workers used laptops and only about 3,000 employees worked remotely -- typically while traveling or doing after-hours work. The news wasn’t all bad, though. DoIT provided options for remote work, including Microsoft Office 365, Cisco and NetMotion, virtual-private network access and Citrix Access Gateway.

“The VPN and Citrix Access Gateway solutions were sized to support less than half the state workforce, based on historic use,” Sorenson said. “In 2019, the DoIT Infrastructure team completed an upgrade to the Citrix environment including introducing a hybrid cloud solution to enable dynamic scaling. During the weeks leading to the stay at home order, the team began assessing current licensing and compute resources and formulating a plan to quickly increase capacity if needed.”

DoIT met with Citrix team members on March 11 to discuss the company’s remote access solution and found they needed additional licensing and hardware to support 30,000 users. Work started that day, and by March 14, about 2,000 users were working from home, she said. Six days later, 3,500 to 4,000 workers were connected.

Specifically, the state is using Citrix Workspace to provide virtual desktops to employees, Steve Nguyen, vice president and general manager of U.S. Public Sector at Citrix, wrote in an email to GCN. DoIT officials had four requirements: enabling employees to work from any device, zero-trust security, support across a hybrid multi-cloud and multi-premise environment and the ability for all that to be up and running within a week.

“The biggest lesson is really the need for government entities to have a work-from-anywhere policy and technology partners to help drive it,” Nguyen said. “No one knows what the ‘next normal’ looks like, but remote work will be a part of it, and employees will need to be equipped with the tools and information they need to do their best work.”

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